Sleep apnea is a condition wherein a person experiences interruptions in their breathing pattern during sleep. This is a serious disorder because it can result in a shortage of oxygen to the brain and other parts of the body. The pauses in breathing can range anywhere from a few seconds to minutes. This condition often goes undiagnosed primarily because there are no blood tests to help identify the condition and it manifests itself only during sleep. The two primary types of sleep apnea are: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Both conditions can have a negative impact on the quality of sleep.
Sleep Apnea Symptoms
Some of the symptoms associated with these two types of sleep apnea are similar and this can make arriving at an accurate diagnosis a difficult process.
Common symptoms of sleep apnea
- Loud snoring
- Sleepiness and fatigue during the day
- Experiencing a sore or dry throat on waking up
- Concentration problems
- Insomnia or frequent waking up at night
- Sensation of choking or shortness of breath during night awakenings
Sleep Apnea Causes
There are two different kinds of sleep apnea, obstructive and central, each with different causes. There is also a variety of risk factors associated with the disease.
- Obstructive sleep apnea is more common and occurs when the throat muscles relax causing the airway to collapse. This leads to a lowering in the level of oxygen in the blood. When this happens, the brain signals one to wake up very briefly and open the airways.
- In central sleep apnea, the brain is unable to send the right signals to the muscles that control breathing. This can lead to awakening with shortness of breath and lead to difficulty in falling asleep again.
- Heart failure
Risk factors are greater in:
- Males over the age of 40
- Overweight persons
- People with a thicker neck circumference
- Persons with cardiovascular ailments
- Persons with some type of nasal obstruction
Sleep Apnea Diagnosis
When sleep apnea is suspected, a doctor might recommend a polysomnogram, which monitors the patient while asleep. Also known as a ‘sleep study’, this test is done at a sleep disorder center or at home. Home sleep tests involve measuring heart rate, blood oxygen level, and breathing patterns with the assistance of portable devices. In some cases, this provides enough data for a doctor to arrive at a diagnosis. If not, the test might have to be done at a sleep disorder center where sophisticated equipment is used to monitor these factors.
Sleep Apnea Treatment
In mild cases of sleep apnea, doctors generally recommend lifestyle changes such as losing weight, changing sleep positions to facilitate better breathing, quitting smoking, and staying away from alcohol or sleeping pills. However, a doctor may recommend more other options.
- Oral appliances or mouthpieces – These can be fitted over the jaw and tongue to enable the airways to stay open during sleep.
- Breathing devices – A CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine is commonly used to blow air into the throat with the help of a mask worn over the face and mouth to ensure the airways stay open when sleeping.
- Surgery – The type of surgery required will depend on the kind of sleep apnea diagnosed. Surgery might be done to widen breathing passages, remove or shrink excess tissue in the mouth, rectify a deviated nasal septum, or to put in implants.