What is Sleep Apnea?

Do you snore at night? Do you wake up suddenly with a shortness of breath or a dry mouth? You may suffer from sleep apnea syndrome. Don’t know what that is? Well, below you will find a comprehensive overview to answer all of your questions.

What is sleep apnea syndrome?

Sleep apnea syndrome is a common sleep disorder in which pauses in breathing occur repetitively during sleep. In some cases, breathing doesn’t stop all together, but is very shallow for a period that lasts at least 10 seconds. The breathing pauses in sleep apnea can last from a few seconds to a full minute and happen about 5 to 30 times per hour!

As you can likely imagine, sleep apnea—usually a chronic condition—can be incredibly disruptive when you’re trying to get a good night’s sleep. When the pauses occur, you usually move from a deep sleep to a light sleep, and when breathing starts again, you may wake yourself up with a loud snort. As sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed, it is one of the leading causes of daytime fatigue.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

So how do you know if you have sleep apnea? One common symptom of sleep apnea is daytime sleepiness, medically referred to as hypersomnia. Of course, lots of us find ourselves tired in the morning, and not all of us have sleep apnea.

Here are some other common symptoms of sleep apnea:

  • Loud snoring
  • Abrupt awakenings accompanied by shortness of breath
  • Awakening often with a dry mouth or sour throat
  • Morning headaches
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Observed intermittent pauses in your breathing during sleep
  • Memory or learning problems; inability to concentrate
  • Feeling irritable or depressed
  • Uncharacteristic mood changes
  • Increased hyperactivity or ADHD (in children).
Here’s what you look like when you sleep with Sleep Apnea Syndrome:

What are the types of sleep apnea?

The are two main types of sleep apnea, and their differences mainly lie in their causes.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type. It occurs when the airway is blocked because of overly relaxed or collapsed throat muscles. The muscles make an effort to breath properly, but they are unsuccessful.

Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing. As a result, your body will make no attempt to breathe for several seconds.

Occasionally, a person may have complex (sometimes called mixed) sleep apnea. This means that you have both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

How is the severity of sleep apnea judged?

If you have sleep apnea, you may have a mild, moderate, or severe case. The severity of your sleep apnea is judged in two ways, (1) the amount by which airflow is disturbed and (2) the consequences of the disturbed airflow.

What is mild sleep apnea?
Mild sleep apnea usually involves about 5 to 15 airflow disturbances per hour. Based on symptoms, mild sleep apnea is defined by unwanted sleepiness or involuntary sleep episodes during activities that don’t require much attention, like watching television or reading. Mild sleep apnea doesn’t usually cause major impairment of social or occupational function.

What is moderate sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is considered moderate when you experience about 15 to 30 airflow disturbances per hour. Additionally, unwanted sleepiness or involuntary sleep episodes happen during activities that do require some attention, like meetings and presentations. Clearly, this can create problems in social and professional situations.

What is severe sleep apnea?
Severe sleep apnea is characterized by 30 or more disturbances in airflow per hour. Unwanted sleepiness and involuntary sleep episodes are quite common and occur even in situations that require active attention, like having a conversation, walking, or driving. People experiencing severe sleep apnea, and are not undergoing treatment, must deal with serious consequences.

What is the cause of sleep apnea?

At this point, you’re probably wondering what causes sleep apnea. There are actually numerous causes, particularly for obstructive sleep apnea. Here are some of the main causes:

  • over-relaxed tongue and throat muscle
  • obesity or excess weight
  • large tongue and/or tonsils (relative to your windpipe!)
  • the shape of your head and neck
  • the aging process has limited your brain’s ability to keep your throat muscles stiff during sleep

In the case of central sleep apnea, the brain’s respiratory control centers are imbalanced during sleep. The level of carbon dioxide in the blood is not maintained and the control centers are not able to act quickly enough to maintain an even respiratory rate.

There are also several risk factors that increase your chances of developing sleep apnea. Most significantly, over half the adults who have this condition are overweight. Men over the age of 65 are the most prone to sleep apnea.

How is sleep apnea treated?

First, you need to be diagnosed. If you have any of the previously mentioned symptoms, you should visit your doctor to get them checked out. Even if you don’t have sleep apnea, your doctor may be able to find a way to help you improve the quality of your sleep.

The treatment for sleep apnea varies depending on the severity and type of sleep apnea you experience, as well as the cause. Treatments range from lifestyle changes to mouthpieces and breathing devices to surgery (in severe cases). It is important to get treatment for your sleep apnea because over time the chronic condition can cause complications and increase your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

For mild sleep apnea, simple lifestyle changes can play a big factor in treatment. Avoiding alcohol and medicines that cause drowsiness, losing excess weight, sleeping on your side, and avoiding smoking can all help improve sleep apnea. Another treatment for mild sleep apnea is the mouthpiece, a custom-fit plastic appliance that adjusts your lower jaw and tongue to help keep your airways open while you sleep.

The most common type of treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea is the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. For this treatment, the machine is connected to a mask that fits over your mouth and nose. The machine blows air into your throat and the air pressure presses on the walls of your airway, keeping it from narrowing.

For severe sleep apnea, sometimes surgery is done to widen breathing passages or shrink or stiffen excess tissue in the mouth or throat. If your tonsils are blocking your airway, they can also be removed through surgery to improve your sleep apnea.

About Mariele Ventrice

I am a writer, reader, and expert napper. Sometimes, I sleep with the lights on.