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What Is Sleep Apnea?

Posted Jun 28 2009 12:00am

Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. Snoring is often a symptom of this serious condition. Sleep apnea is a life-threatening condition, it is most common among overweight men.

In sleep apnea, the airway becomes blocked or breathing muscles stop moving. Breathing stops or becomes shallower hundreds of times each night. People with sleep apnea are often less aware of their fatigue and sleepiness than are people with other types of sleep disturbances. Sleep experts say that doctors should be more vigilant in diagnosing apnea because it contributes not only to daytime sleepiness, but also to traffic accidents, cognitive difficulties, and heart problems.

During apnea events, there is a drop in blood oxygen levels, an increase in heart rate, a burst of stress hormones, and disrupted sleep when the body awakens slightly so that breathing will resume, sometimes with a gasp.

There are 2 major types of Sleep Apnea.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the most common type and is due to an obstruction in the throat during sleep. Bed partners notice pauses approx. 10 to 60 seconds between loud snores. The narrowing of the upper airway can be a result of several factors including inherent physical characteristics, excess weight, and alcohol consumption before sleep.

Central Sleep Apnea is caused by a delay in the signal form the brain to breath . With both obstructive and central apnea you must wake up briefly to breathe, sometimes hundreds of times during the night. Usually there is no memory of these brief awakenings.

Causes Of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea occurs when the upper airway is obstructed or collapses for a number of reasons. Excessive weight and too much tissue in the upper airway are major causes. Loss of muscle tone due to aging, or during the muscle relaxation found in dream sleep, may contribute. Additionally, apnea may sometimes occur because the brain forgets to stimulate breathing.

Symptoms Of Sleep Apnea

•    Loud Snoring
•    Waking up unrefreshed and having trouble staying awake during the day
•    Waking up with headaches
•    Waking up during the night with the sensation of choking
•    Waking up sweating
•    Frequent trips to the bathroom during the night
•    Insomnia – problem staying asleep
•    Being overweight but not necessary
•    Waking and gasping for air

Effects of Sleep Apnea?

Because of the serious disturbances in their normal sleep patterns, people with sleep apnea often feel very sleepy during the day and their concentration and daytime performance suffer. The consequences of sleep apnea range from annoying to life-threatening. They include symptoms suggesting depression, irritability, sexual dysfunction, learning and memory difficulties, and falling asleep while at work, on the phone, or driving. Untreated sleep apnea patients are 3 times (or more) likely to have automobile accidents; CPAP treatment reverses the increased risk. It has been estimated that up to 50 percent of sleep apnea patients have high blood pressure. It has recently been shown that sleep apnea contributes to high blood pressure. Risk for heart attack and stroke may also increase in those with sleep apnea.

Untreated sleep apnea can:

•    Increase the risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity, and diabetes
•    Increase the risk for or worsen heart failure
•    Make irregular heartbeats more likely
•    Increase the chance of having work-related or driving accidents

It is a potentially life-threatening condition that may require immediate medical attention. The risks of undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea include heart attacks, strokes, impotence, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and heart disease. In addition, obstructive sleep apnea causes daytime sleepiness that can result in accidents, lost productivity and interpersonal relationship problems.  The severity of the symptoms may be mild, moderate or severe.

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