Sleep apnea is a fairly common and potentially serous medical condition. People with this sleep disorder stop breathing on and off during the night while sleeping.
There are two types of sleep apnea. The most common is obstructive sleep apnea and the less common is central sleep apnea.
Central sleep apnea is caused by problems in the brain that disrupt signals to the respiratory muscles so no effort is made to breathe for a short time. Central sleep apnea accounts for less than five percent of all cases of sleep apnea.
It is most commonly caused by brain damage, cerebrovascular disease, heart disease, or drug overdose. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when respiratory effort is made but air cannot flow into the lungs because of an obstruction of some sort.
Obstructive sleep apnea can be caused by obesity, nasal obstruction, drug overdose or anything that causes over relaxation or obstruction of the muscles of the throat.
Many people with sleep apnea display the symptom of being overly sleepy during the day because of lack of a restful night's sleep. They may also have insomnia at night and frequent headaches, especially in the morning. They may awaken abruptly, gasping for breath or wake up short of breath. They may also snore loudly and awaken with a dry mouth and sore throat.
Sleeping partners may actually observe periods when no respiratory movements are made or they may witness the sleeper struggling to draw air past the obstruction in the nose or throat.
A doctor may be able to diagnose sleep apnea based upon the history of symptoms. A definitive diagnosis can be made by means of a sleep study test or polysomnography. This test is performed at night while the patient sleeps. It is done in a sleep lab or in the patient's home in some cases.
The patient is connected to devices that measure the oxygen in the blood, heart rate, respiratory rate, chest movement, and airflow. It may also be necessary to determine the cause of the sleep apnea in order to properly treat it.
A neurological workup may be needed for cases of central sleep apnea.
Examination by an ear, nose, and throat specialist might be indicated for a patient with obstructive sleep apnea.
The primary treatment for sleep apnea is CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure). This is a medical device worn on the nose while sleeping that blows air into the airway in order to create a positive pressure that keeps the airways open and air flowing into the lungs.
Oral devices may be effective in some cases. These are put in the mouth and they pull the lower jaw forward in an effort to keep the airway open.
For some people, surgery might be the best option. This might be sinus surgery or laser surgery on the uvula. These surgeries remove blockages and trim away excess tissue that might be blocking the airway.
Lifestyle changes may also help combat sleep apnea. Losing weight is the first step since there is a strong link between obesity and this sleep disorder.
Avoiding drugs or alcohol before sleeping is also recommended. Sleeping with the head of the bed elevated and sleeping on one's side can also help keep the airways open while sleeping.
It is important that sleep apnea is diagnosed and treated properly otherwise serious complications can arise. Daytime sleepiness can make patients more susceptible to having accidents. The drop of oxygen levels caused by apnea puts a strain on the cardiovascular system and can lead to high blood pressure and even heart attack or stroke.