Sleep Apnea

Published: February 6, 2012

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What Is It?

Sleep apnea is a chronic condition and sleep disorder that causes breathing pauses throughout the night. These pauses can last for several seconds or minutes and can occur multiple times in an hour.

Most sleep apnea patients also experience shallow breathing while asleep. If you have sleep apnea, after a night's sleep, this shallow breathing can cause you to wake up feeling tired - as if you have not received a full night's sleep. In the long term, you may feel chronically fatigued, and your blood oxygen levels may become slightly or drastically lowered.

Because sleep apnea patients are sleeping, they may not realize that they are experiencing breathing problems. Sleep apnea can only be diagnosed by observation. Your partner may notice that you are snoring or experiencing breathing pauses while you sleep. To diagnose sleep apnea, you will need to undergo a sleep study in which the doctor will monitor your sleeping patterns.

Sleep apnea is common and can be very serious in the long term, putting patients at risk for hypoxemia, hypercapnia, and congestive heart failure. Other potential damage involves permanent brain injury. You may have trouble staying awake at school or at work, and you may have no idea that sleep apnea is causing your problems. Most cases of sleep apnea remain undiagnosed, and most people have unaware that they have the condition until they start to exhibit serious symptoms.

Types

There are three different kinds of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) results when the pharynx tissues obstruct breathing. Central sleep apnea is rare and causes the brain to malfunction with breathing.

In rare situations, patients might develop mixed sleep apnea, which is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. This type of sleep apnea can be extremely dangerous.

All types of sleep apnea are serious and require treatment. No matter the type of sleep apnea that you have, you may experience symptoms for years - even decade before realizing that you have a breathing problem.

No matter the type, sleep apnea can cause snoring, pauses in breathing, and sustaining fatigue. If you are tired, you should talk to a doctor about undergoing a sleep study as soon as possible to determine whether you have sleep apnea or another condition.

Symptoms & Warning Signs

Loud snoring is a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form of sleep apnea. Some sleep apnea patients experience no snoring at all.

The typical symptoms of sleep apnea include sleepiness, morning headaches, dry throat, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and unexplained irritability.

Over time when left untreated, side effects of sleep apnea can cause you to develop symptoms that are more serious, including hypoxemia, hypercapnia, and congestive heart failure.

You should consult a doctor if you experience loud snoring, trouble breathing that causes you to wake up, and excessive fatigue throughout the day. You may need to undergo a sleep test for sleep apnea, or you may have another problem that requires treatment.

Causes & Risk Factors

Sleep apnea is most common among men. Men above the age of 65 and women who have completed menopause are the most commonly affected group. Obesity is another strong risk factor. People with large tonsils and irritated nostrils are more likely to develop problems related to sleep apnea. You may develop sleep apnea when your throat muscles and tongues relax more than normal due to alcohol and sedatives. People with a family history of sleep apnea are likely to develop the condition.

Prevention & Treatment

Lifestyle changes can help prevent and treat sleep apnea. It is recommended that sleep apnea patients limit alcohol, lose weight, and stop smoking. Patients might also see improvements after changing sleeping positions. It is recommended that sleep apnea patients avoid sleeping on their backs. Most sleep apnea patients will need to sleep with a mask that provides pressurized air to stop the airway from collapsing. In some cases, patients require surgery.

Tests & Diagnosis

Before consulting a doctor, you should ask your sleep partner to document you're the severity of your snoring. No lab tests are available to diagnose sleep apnea; rather, the doctor will document your family history, monitor your symptoms, give you a general physical exam, and order a sleep test to check for common symptoms of sleep apnea.

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