What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder that causes interrupted breathing when you are asleep. Those who suffer from sleep apnea tend to cease breathing repeatedly during their sleep.

This can happen hundreds of times during a night’s sleep, making it one of the more serious sleeping disorders. As a result, your brain and your body cannot receive enough oxygen, which can lead to other health problems.

It is estimated that approximately 22 million people in the country suffer from this sleeping disorder. Moreover, around 80 percent of people in the U.S. who experience obstructive and central sleep apnea remain undiagnosed.

If you think you may have sleep apnea, it is vital to get yourself checked by a doctor. Once you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, you can pursue an appropriate course of treatment. Information about different types of sleep apnea and possible treatments is covered below.

How many types of sleep apnea are there?

There are three different kinds of sleep apnea. Overall, the most common condition is obstructive sleep apnea. This occurs when there is a blockage to your airway, which typically happens when the tissue at the back of your throat collapses while sleeping.

The second type of sleep apnea is called central sleep apnea. With this version of the condition, your airway is not blocked. Instead, the instability of your respiratory control means your brain does not send signals to your muscles telling them to breathe. Lastly, there is complex sleep apnea. This disorder is a combination of the other two types of sleep apnea.

Regardless of which conditions you have, they can all give you problems sleeping properly, which can lead to a lack of sleep that can impact you health in other ways.

The Risks and Effects of Sleep Apnea

Anyone of any age can be affected by sleep apnea. It can happen to both adults and children, though some people are more at risk of sleep apnea than others. If you are male, overweight or over 40 years of age, your risk is heightened.

Large neck circumference can increase the chances of having sleep apnea as well. For men, this means a neck size of over 17 inches. For women, it is a neck size of at least 16 inches. Other risk factors include having a large tongue, large tonsils or a small jaw bone. If there is a history of sleep apnea in your family, you also have an increased risk of suffering from this disorder.

If you do not get treatment for sleep apnea, it can cause various health problems over time. These health issues can include:

  • Heart failure and heart attacks.
  • Strokes. 
  • Diabetes. 
  • High blood pressure.
  • Headaches. 
  • Depression. 

If you have ADHD, sleep apnea can also make your symptoms worse. Untreated sleep apnea can cause poor performance with daily activities as well. You may experience difficultly in school, at work or even when driving your car.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

How do you know if you have sleep apnea? If you suffer from some of the following symptoms, you must get yourself checked out by a doctor to find out if you have sleep apnea. That way, an appropriate course of treatment can then be found. Common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Snoring loudly.
  • Waking up at night with a gasping or choking sensation.
  • Waking up in the morning with a dry or sore throat.
  • Restless sleeping.
  • Headaches in the morning.
  • Feeling tired during the day.
  • Insomnia. 
  • Mood changes.
  • Forgetfulness. 
  • A lack of interest in sex.

Diagnosing Sleep Apnea

When you go to see your doctor because you have symptoms of sleep apnea, your doctor may ask you to undergo a test called a polysomnogram. This can be performed either at home, though for the best results you want to get tested in a sleep disorder center.

During the test, you are hooked up to equipment that records and transmits certain physical activities while you are sleeping. Surface electrodes are placed onto your scalp and face to record signals generated by your muscle activity and your brain. Belts are also put around your abdomen and chest to measure your breathing, and an oximeter probe is attached to your finger to monitor the amount of oxygen in your blood.

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A qualified sleep specialist then determines if you have sleep apnea or another kind of sleeping disorder. If it is found you do have sleep apnea, you may be asked to have further tests so your doctor can determine the best treatment method.

Treating Sleep Apnea

There are several treatments available for sleep apnea. Treatments are wide-ranging, from lifestyle changes to surgery. For example, mild cases of sleep apnea are generally treated by changing your behavior. This could be losing weight, changing your sleeping position, avoiding alcohol or giving up smoking tobacco.

Surgery is used as treatment for people who have sleep apnea due to enlarged tonsils, a small lower jaw or a deviated nasal septum. There are three common types of surgery performed for sleep apnea, including:

  • Nasal surgery. This corrects issues like a deviated septum.
  • This is more commonly known by the easier to pronounce UPPP or UP3. UUUP removes the soft tissue at the back of your throat and palate, so your airway is widened.
  • Mandibular maxillomandibular. This is an advanced surgery that corrects specific throat obstructions or facial problems.

Another common course of treatment is called continuous positive airway pressure. This involves wearing a mask that covers your nose while you are asleep. The mask is attached to a machine that sends a continual flow of air into your nasal passages. This allows your airways to remain open, which means your breathing is regular while you sleep.

An alternative to continuous positive airway pressure treatment is to use a device called an upper airway stimulator. The device is implanted under your skin in the upper chest. It is a small pulse generator with wires leading into your lungs to detect your natural breathing pattern. Another wire leads into your neck. This keeps your airway muscles open by sending a mild stimulation into your nerves.

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