Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which one’s breathing pauses while one is asleep. These pauses last from seconds to minutes and can occur five to 30 times per hour.
Sleep apnea is a common condition affecting 12 million to 18 million Americans. It robs people of a good night’s sleep, causing excessive daytime drowsiness and a feeling of constant tiredness.
Most people with sleep apnea aren’t aware of the condition and might think they are getting a decent sleep. Many are tipped off by a family member or bed partner who is aware of the sleeper’s nocturnal breathing difficulties.
Sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax, which can temporarily narrow and even close off the airway. The brain then senses the lack of oxygen and awakens the sleeper enough to take a normal breath, and so the cycle continues.
Symptoms of sleep apnea are:
-Loud snorting or choking sounds during sleep.
– Loud snoring. (But not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.)
– Excessive daytime sleeping or drowsiness.
– Observed episodes of not breathing during sleep.
– Awakening with dry mouth or sore throat.
– Abrupt awakening, feeling short of breath.
Sleep apnea is found more commonly among people who are obese; men; the elderly; users of sleeping medications, tranquilizers, alcohol or tobacco; and patients with hypertension or hypothyroidism.
The condition is diagnosed on the basis of family and medical histories, a physical exam and sleep studies done at specialized sleep clinics. These sleep studies, some of which can also be done at home, monitor the sleeper and can definitively determine if one has sleep apnea and how severe it is.
Treatments for sleep apnea include lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol and tobacco use, losing weight, sleeping on one’s side instead of on the back, and keeping nasal passages clear.
Some patients wear mouthpieces to keep their airways open while they sleep, and others use breathing devices, such as the continuous positive airway pressure machine. This machine uses a mask that fits over the mouth and nose, or just over the nose. It gently blows air into the throat, keeping the airway open.
In some cases, surgery may be used to widen breathing passages.
Sleep apnea needs to be taken seriously. Studies in recent years have shown that people with untreated sleep apnea have a three times greater chance of death, mostly from heart attacks, than people without the condition.
If you show signs and symptoms of sleep apnea, or if someone you love does, a visit to a primary-care physician is essential for a routine health check and referral to a sleep specialist.