Sleep Apnea

Sleep Apnea is the number one sleep disorder in the United States. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association people who have sleep apnea “stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times during the night and often for a minute or longer.” The National Institute of Health estimates that twelve million Americans have sleep apnea.

There are three different types of sleep apnea, however they all involve the same symptom, disrupted breathing during sleep. The three types of sleep apnea are obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and mixed sleep apnea. In all of these conditions the patient’s sleep is routinely disrupted due to a lack of oxygen. The brain picks up on the lack of oxygen and basically causes the person to wake up momentarily, in order to reestablish breath. Then the person falls back to sleep, and the cycle repeats.

The differences between obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and mixed sleep apnea involve the root cause of the breathing disruption. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) results from a blocked airway, which is usually caused by the collapse and/or closure of soft tissue in the rear of the throat. For people with central sleep apnea there is no physical airway blockage, however the brain fails to send the signal to the muscles to trigger breathing. Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of these two types of sleep apnea.

Risk factors for sleep apnea include gender (males are more likely to suffer sleep apnea,) being overweight, and being over 40 years old. It should be noted, however, that sleep apnea affects a broad range of people, and that even children can have sleep apnea.

Individuals with sleep apnea suffer from very poor quality of sleep. Even if they spend 8 or more hours sleeping, they will likely be very tired because all throughout their sleep their brain has been waking them up momentarily to signal them to begin breathing. This puts people with sleep apnea at risk for other sleep disorders, such as sleep deprivation. If you suffer from daytime drowsiness, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, headaches, difficulty breathing during the night, or if your spouse has noticed that you snore and seem to gasp for air during sleep, you should consult your doctor, a sleep physician, or another sleep specialist. You may have sleep apnea and your sleep doctor will likely refer you to a sleep lab for further testing.

It is critical to properly diagnose and treat any sleep disorder. In the case of a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, there are serious side effects that can negatively impact your health and your life if your sleep disorder goes untreated. Sleep apnea has been linked to conditions such as heart disease and heart attacks, so be sure to contact your doctor if you may have sleep apnea.


Sleep Apnea in Children

When we think of getting a good night’s sleep many people think “I slept like a baby.” But did you know that babies and children can suffer from sleep apnea? The condition is serious if left untreated, but when diagnosed properly by a sleep doctor the treatments are very effective.

For most children the sleep apnea problems show up between the ages of 2 years and 6 years of age. The episodes of apnea are caused by a blocked airway, usually due to enlarged adenoids and/or tonsils. Symptoms of childhood sleep apnea include snoring, difficulty with nighttime breathing, and restless sleep.

If you notice that your child snores frequently and/or seems to gasp for air during sleep you should consult with your pediatrician. In many case, pediatric obstructive sleep apnea goes undiagnosed. If your pediatrician doesn’t take your concerns seriously, it may be prudent to get a second opinion. Seeking out the care of a qualified sleep specialist can help with diagnosis and be a preventive measure towards any possible health problems that result from undiagnosed and untreated childhood sleep apnea sleep disorders.

To learn more about this type of sleep apnea, visit the American Sleep Apnea Association’s page about Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Children.


What Causes Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when you stop breathing while sleeping due to something blocking your airway. The blockage can be caused by your uvula relaxing into the back of your throat or by having a weak jaw muscle or tongue. A blockage of the airway behind the nose can also lead to sleep apnea. Since the body doesn’t receive any oxygen when the back of the throat is blocked the brain is forced to wake up, otherwise the you would suffocate. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common and is not as dangerous as central sleep apnea.

The other form of this sleep disorder, central sleep apnea is caused when the brain fails to send a signal to tell the body to breathe. This is caused by some type of medical condition in the respiratory system. Central sleep apnea usually occurs in individuals (infants or adults) with heart disease, cardiovascular disease, or other congenital disorders. It can also occur due to certain medications, drugs, or altitude changes. Central sleep apnea is a serious condition that requires prompt medical attention by a qualified sleep physician, sleep lab technician or other sleep specialist.

Sometimes individuals will present with a sleep disorder that is a combination of both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. This is known as mixed sleep apnea and is diagnosed as the result of sleep testing by sleep doctors in a sleep lab, just like other forms of sleep apnea are diagnosed.

Although sleep apnea is its own sleeping disorder, it can cause other sleep disorders such as a sleep deprivation and oxygen deprivation. About one in five people who suffer from sleep apnea also suffer from depression. Depression can become worse due to sleep apnea so be sure that your sleep physician and any other doctors involved in the treatment of your sleep apnea are aware of other problems you are having with sleep, depression, or any other general health concerns.


Treating Sleep Apnea

Perhaps the most common treatment for the sleep disorder known as sleep apnea is the use of a continuous positive airway pressure mask, also called a CPAP. A CPAP is a machine that is connected to a mask that you put over your nose that continually pushes oxygen to you which allows you to breath and sleep easier. You wear the mask over your nose while you sleep.

While the CPAP is a very effective way of supplying the body and brain with oxygen that is needed during sleep, research shows that many patients simply cannot adjust to wearing their CPAP mask while they sleep. Effort should be made to find the proper CPAP fit; not all CPAP masks are alike and your sleep doctor or sleep lab technician should be able to help you find the CPAP mask that works best for you.

Your sleep apnea may also be able to be treated by a doctor or dentist who specializes in sleep medicine. If your sleep apnea is caused by an obstruction of the airway (obstuctive sleep apnea) your sleep doctor may refer you to a dentist for oral appliance therapy.

Other simple steps to take towards minimizing the effects of your sleep apnea sleep disorder include:

  • refraining from the use of tobacco and alcohol products
  • elevating the head of your mattress by 4-6 inches
  • losing weight (to minimize the pressure on your airway by your neck)
  • wearing nasal strips, such as Breathe Right® strips, to help open your nasal passages

You can read more about treatments for sleep apnea here. If you think you may have sleep apnea, the first step is to visit your doctor or call 1-800-More-Sleep to find your local sleep disorder physician.