Sleep apnea, a disorder that affects about 12 million Americans, is characterized by breath pauses during sleep, which may last for 20 to 30 seconds or more. Sleep apnea episodes usually happen five to 30 times in an hour and may cause sleep disturbances. Snorting, choking, and snoring are typical to people with sleep apnea. It is common in men and older people, although women and children can also be diagnosed with it.
Because of the nature of the condition, people with sleep apnea are normally not aware of their sleeping irregularities. In fact, it is said that 80 to 90% of people with sleep apnea are undiagnosed. Usually, it is their bed partners who notice their condition.
Types of sleep apnea
There are two types of sleep apnea. The more common is called obstructive sleep apnea and involves a blocked airway. This blockage can result from over-relaxed throat muscles and tongue, obesity, and facial and bone structure deformities. Once the airway is blocked, breathing stops and the person begins to gasp and snort.
The oxygen level decreases, while carbon dioxide level increases. This then stimulates the brain to normalize the breathing process and prompts the person to wake up and to open the airway by adjusting the tongue and throat muscles. Normal breathing then ensues followed usually by loud snoring. The person, however, may neither remember being awake for a short time nor be aware of his gasps for air.
The other type is called central sleep apnea, which is caused by the brain’s delayed signals to the breathing muscles. Breathing stops and oxygen level begins to drop. Unlike obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea is less common. It is a central nervous system disorder and can result from an injury or disease that involves the brainstem. This can be in the form of stroke and brain tumor, among other things. Though people with central sleep apnea may not typically snore, they may experience shortness of breath.
Both types have different causes, but their effects are the same: low level of oxygen in the brain, poor sleep, excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and even depression. They can also contribute to high blood pressure and heart irregularities when the oxygen reaches a dangerously low level. However, sleep apnea can also be literally disturbing to the bed partner because of the loud snoring that can cause sleep deprivation.
There are other factors to consider when looking at sleep apnea. It has been found that the condition could raise the risk for heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. It could also increase risks for heart failure.
What to do
It would be hard for a person to know whether he has sleep apnea, since the condition manifests only during sleep. However, if he suspects to having the condition, especially if he shows the symptoms, he can opt to document his sleeping patterns. For instance, he can ask his bed partner to journal episodes of breath pauses, snoring, choking, or snorting. Or if he sleeps alone, he can videotape himself sleeping and notice if there are irregularities. These observations would help determine if seeing a doctor or a sleep specialist is necessary.
Upon diagnosis, the sleep specialist would recommend treatments or surgeries depending on the severity of the condition. But for minor sleep apnea, some behavioral treatments or lifestyle changes can be helpful. Examples are avoidance of alcohol and tobacco, weight loss, and having regular sleep hours.
But in any case, seeking the professional advice of a sleep specialist is necessary in treating a diagnosed case of sleep apnea.