Definition and Overview

Sleep Apnea is a sleeping disorder that disrupts a person’s breathing during sleep. It is a serious disease especially when left untreated, as it can cause a person to stop breathing. It can also make the breathing shallow several times while the patient is asleep, leaving the body, especially the brain, deprived of oxygen. These brief pauses in breathing can last from just a few seconds to several minutes. They can also be very frequent, sometimes occurring up to 30 times within the span of an hour.

These breathing pauses may cause major health problems in the long run. In the worst cases, they can lead to:

Causes and Types of Sleep Apnea

There are two types of this condition, which are as follows:

  • Central sleep apnea – In a central sleep apnea case, the brain fails to send the right signals to the muscles to prompt it to breathe. This failure is due to instability in the respiratory system.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea – In an obstructive case of the disorder, the soft tissue located at the back of the throat collapses and blocks the airway during sleep. This is considered as the more common of the two types.

Adults and children alike may experience apnea, although it has a greater chance of developing in people with the following risk factors:

  • Overweight individuals
  • Those aged 40 years old or older
  • Those with a family history of apnea
  • Those with a neck size of at least 17 inches in men and 16 inches in women
  • Those with tonsils that are larger in size than the average individual
  • Those with larger tongues
  • Those with small jaw bones
  • Those with a family history of apnea or other sleep disorders
  • Those with a deviated septum
  • Those who suffer from allergies
  • Sufferers of GERD or gastroesophageal reflux
  • Sufferers of sinus problems

Key Symptoms


Since it occurs during sleep, most people are not aware that they suffer from sleep apnea. Although symptoms may present themselves, not all sufferers readily blame them on a sleeping disorder. However, if you experience some of these symptoms, it is best to get examined by a health professional.

  • Loud snoring
  • Choking or gasping sensation that may occasional rouse you from sleep
  • Sleepiness during the day or when driving
  • Lack of energy
  • Restless sleep
  • Headaches, especially in the morning after waking up
  • Poor memory
  • Mood swings
  • Decreased sexual interest
  • Insomnia
  • Waking up repeatedly in the middle of the night
  • Waking up with a sore throat
  • Dryness in the throat

Sleep apnea, along with other sleep disorders, also hinders a person from performing at his best due to the fatigue and sleep deprivation he experiences.

It has also been linked to poor academic performance among children and adolescents.

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

If you experience any of these symptoms, see your primary care provider right away and ask for a sleep apnea test. Termed as a polysomnogram, this test is available in sleep disorder centers but can be easily conducted in your own home.

A polysomnogram is also dubbed as “sleep study” in which the activities your body undergoes during sleep are digitally transmitted and recorded. Some patients may find the sleep test slightly uncomfortable as they will be strapped in the chest and abdomen area with belts that are designed to measure the breathing pattern. To transmit brain activity, your diagnosing doctor will attach surface electrodes to your face. An oximeter probe will also be placed on your finger to determine the level of oxygen present in your blood.

Other possible tests that your doctor may order to guide his diagnosis of the problem include:

  • Electroencephalogram – Measures brainwave activity
  • Electromyogram – Records muscle activity to identify REM sleep and determine whether you have teeth grinding or involuntary facial twitches.
  • Electro-oculogram – Records eye movement
  • Electrocardiogram – Monitors the heart rate and heart rhythm
  • Snore microphone – Records snoring activity
  • Nasal airflow sensor – Records airflow during sleep

Once sleep apnea is confirmed as the main problem, further testing may be conducted to determine the best course of treatment for you.

There are many treatment options being offered to current sufferers of sleep apnea. These include:

  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) – This treatment involves placing a mask over the nose and mouth of a patient during sleep. This mask is connected to a machine that sends a steady supply of air into the nose to regularize breathing. This is the most common treatment method used but it is often supplemented by home treatment and lifestyle changes.

  • Lifestyle changes – Making positive changes in your lifestyle is usually effective in preventing the occurrence of sleep apnea. These include eating a healthy and balanced diet, keeping your weight controlled, and refraining from using sleeping pills.

  • Dental devices or mouthpieces – Some patients use dental devices that are specifically designed to keep the airway open while a person is sleeping. These devices are customized only by dentists who completed specialized training in treating or supporting the treatment of sleep apnea.

  • Surgery – A person suffering from chronic sleep apnea that is not resolved by the above treatment options may also seek surgery to correct the physical cause of the disorder. This treatment option is not widely recommended except as the last resort or in cases where the apnea is caused by a deviated nasal septum, a small lower jaw, or enlarged tonsils. Surgical treatments include nasal surgery, uvulopalatopharyngoplasty wherein the soft tissue that blocks the passage of air is removed, and a mandibular maxillar advancement surgery that corrects facial and throat problems that play a role in triggering apnea attacks.

  • “Inspire” breathing device – Inspire is the name of a special implanted device, which stimulates the nerves that control the muscles in the airway to ensure they remain open and unobstructed.

Sleep Specialist are the health care professionals who specialize in the treatment of sleep disorders. They are trained to analyze the results of your sleep test and in differentiating sleep apnea from other types of sleeping disorders. They can be found in hospitals or specialized sleep clinics.

If sleeping problems are greatly lowering the quality of your daily life, you should see a sleep specialist right away. These health professionals will create a special treatment plan based on your medical history, risk factors, and the specific type and causes of your apnea. If it is a physical cause, such as a small jawbone size, a dentist who specializes in the production of oral appliances or dental devices can also help treat the condition.

References:

  • The National Sleep Foundation
  • White D. (2005). “Pathogenesis of Obstructive and Central Sleep Apnea.” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
  • Aurora RN. et al. “The Treatment of Central Sleep Apnea Syndromes in Adults.” Sleep Research Society and American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
  • Pagel JF. “Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Primary Care.” Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.
  • Gozal D. et al. “Diagnostic Capability of Biological Markers in Assessment of Obstructive Sleep Apnea: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
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