Sleep apnea is the condition in which breathing stops during sleep. Apnea episodes are usually brief, from 10 to 30 seconds. In severe cases, they occur hundreds of times a night.
When breathing stops, the oxygen level in the body drops. This tells the brain to signal the body to wake up and take a breath. Most people don’t remember waking up, but they have troubled sleep cycles.
Apnea can lead to heart problems and daytime sleepiness.
About 4% of middle-aged men and 2% of women have apnea.
The most common cause is obesity (for men, a collar size larger than 17 inches increases the risk of sleep apnea). Very narrow windpipes or very large tonsils can block the throat and cause apnea. Using sleeping pills or alcohol before sleep may increase the chance of having apnea. Other reasons are nasal congestion, sleeping on the back, and sleep deprivation.
The most common symptom is loud snoring. Another symptom is breathing pauses during sleep with loud snorts or gasps as breathing starts. Others are daytime sleepiness, irritability, or problems concentrating; headache, dry mouth, or sore throat when awakening; and shortness of breath during the night.
The health care provider will check the medical history and examine the nose and throat for abnormalities. The diagnosis is made by doing an overnight sleep study in a sleep disorders clinic or at home. During this test, called polysomnography, brain activity, breathing patterns, oxygen levels, and heart rate are recorded.
Treatment and recovery time depend on the severity of apnea. Many people need lifelong treatment. Losing weight, avoiding alcohol and sleeping pills, using nasal decongestants, and not sleeping on the back are usually suggested for mild apnea.
Many people use the system of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). CPAP has a mask for the nose connected to a bedside fan with a hose. Air from the fan goes under pressure through the hose and mask and into the throat, to keep lung passages open.
Other methods include using an oral appliance that make the jaw move forward during sleep. This helps keep the throat open. Operations to keep airways open are possible but may not work.
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