Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which breathing stops or gets shallow during sleep. Pauses in breathing last 10 to 20 seconds and can occur 20 to 30 times or more an hour. The most common type of sleep apnea is called obstructive sleep apnea, which involves a drop in oxygen in the blood due to not getting enough air into the lungs. People with sleep apnea tend to snore loudly and may feel drowsy during the day from the sleep interruptions, which puts them at risk for accidents. There is also an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease among apnea sufferers.
Sleep apnea causes Obstructive sleep apnea occurs because of a collapse of soft tissue in the back of the throat, caused by relaxed throat muscles or extra fatty tissue in the throat that closes off the airway. Central sleep apnea, a rare type of the disorder, occurs when the part of the brain that regulates breathing does not function properly. Obesity, increasing age and smoking increase the risk of developing sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea symptoms Choking, gasping or snoring during sleep, waking up frequently and daytime fatigue are all symptoms of sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea diagnosis/tests If you suspect that you might have sleep apnea, speak with your doctor who will take your medical and family history to find out about your sleep patterns. She will check your nose and throat to see if the uvula or soft palate at the back of the throat is enlarged. Your doctor may refer to you to a sleep specialist who will conduct a sleep study to diagnose apnea, using a polysomnogram, which records your breathing and the oxygen in your blood, among other factors. The test may be done in a sleep lab or the doctor may give you a portable sleep monitor to take home. The test results will help the doctor determine if you have sleep apnea and if so, how severe it is.
Sleep apnea treatment Dental appliances may help mild cases by keeping the airway open during sleep. The main treatment for sleep apnea is Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), a mask worn during sleep that connects to a pump that keeps the airway open with airflow. Losing weight may also eliminate sleep apnea. If these methods don’t resolve the problem, surgery may be required to open the airway or reduce obstructions.
Sleep apnea prevention It may be possible to prevent sleep apnea with these lifestyle and sleep changes:
• Avoid drinking alcohol or taking sedatives before sleep since they relax the throat muscles.
• Maintain a healthy body weight with exercise and a healthy diet. Having a fat neck narrows your throat airway.
• Do not smoke; nicotine may relax the muscles that keep the airways open.
• Sleep on your side to prevent snoring and raise the head of your bed or use a cervical pillow to keep your head elevated.
• If you snore, get treated before it progresses to obstructive sleep apnea.