Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea refers to non-breathing episodes during sleep, which may occur as frequently as several hundred times per night.

Sleep apnea may occur in men, women and children of any age, but is most common in individuals over 35 years old. Over 20 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea. A routine medical exam cannot reveal the main symptoms of this illness because the patient's breathing and airway remains normal while awake.

Sleep apnea can lead to life threatening health problems. During apneic episodes, the oxygen content of the blood can decrease causing blood pressure to rise sharply and the heart to slow or stop. Sleep apnea can cause personality changes, morning headaches, hypertension, irregular heart rhythm, impotence and even death. People with untreated apnea are at a much greater risk for heart attack, stroke and motor vehicle accidents.

Proper diagnosis of the severity and type of apnea can only be determined by monitoring the individual's sleep. Testing is available at accredited sleep centers which use specialized diagnostic equipment.

Obstructive sleep apnea refers to pauses in breathing caused by an obstruction from the tonsils, uvula or fatty tissue, or by involuntary muscle relaxation which blocks the airflow during sleep. OSA is the most common form of sleep apnea and is eight times more likely to occur in men than women.

Central sleep apnea is an absence of airflow and respiratory effort - likely due to decreased input by the central nervous system.

Mixed apnea refers to a combination of central and obstructive types.

Very often a person suffering from sleep apnea may not be aware of his/her snoring and breathing irregularities during sleep. The spouse is usually the first to recognize the symptoms and is disturbed during the night by loud snoring or restless movements of the bed partner. The person may only recognize that he or she is excessively sleepy during the day, even though he or she slept through the night.

Symptoms while asleep: Loud irregular snoring, snorting or gasping for breath; sudden body movements before the person starts to breathe again; excessive sweating during sleep; irregular pounding or beating of the heart when gasping for breath.

Symptoms while awake: Excessive daytime sleepiness and/or fatigue; complaints of insomnia or lack of restful sleep; rapid weight gain sometimes to the point of obesity; confusion or brief memory loss upon awakening; unexplained morning headache; high blood pressure; impotence; personality changes; depression.

What causes OSA?
When you sleep, all of your body's muscles relax more than they do during waking hours. This doesn't cause problems for most people, but in some people this relaxation lets the airway in the back of the throat become too narrow and this interferes with breathing. Sleep then becomes a time of increased health risk. A smaller-than-normal jaw, overbite, large tongue, enlarged tonsils, or tissues that partially block the entrance to the airway can be factors. Sometimes several of these conditions are present in the same person.

Alcohol, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers taken at bedtime also reduce muscle tone and can make the throat more likely to collapse. Some people with OSAS may actually have more disturbed sleep when they take sleeping pills.

While most people with OSA have no apparent physical flaw that interferes with their breathing during sleep, chronic physical conditions can play a role.

OSA most often strikes overweight men. A different throat structure or levels of hormones may protect women. In later years, the gap between the sexes narrows, although it never disappears completely.

What happens if I am not treated for OSA?
  • A list of some of the known consequences of untreated OSAS:
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Morning headaches or nausea
  • Loss of interest in sex/impotence
  • Frequent nighttime urination
  • Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)
  • Myocardial Infarction (Heart Attack)
  • Stroke
  • Depression

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