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Sleep apnea is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition. It is far more common than previously thought. Sleep apnea happens in all age groups and both genders, although it is more common in men. It is estimated that as many as 18 million Americans have sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. There are two types of sleep apnea:
Sleep apnea is characterized by a number of involuntary breathing pauses or "apneic events" during a single night's sleep. There may be as many as 20 to 30 or more events per hour. These events are usually accompanied by snoring between apnea episodes. But, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. Sleep apnea may also be characterized by choking sensations. The frequent interruptions of deep, restorative sleep often lead to early morning headaches and excessive daytime sleepiness.
During the apneic event, you can’t breathe in oxygen or exhale carbon dioxide. This results in low levels of oxygen and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. This alerts the brain to resume breathing and cause an arousal. With each arousal, a signal is sent from the brain to the upper airway muscles to open the airway. Breathing is resumed, often with a loud snort or gasp. Frequent arousals, although necessary for breathing to restart, prevent restorative, deep sleep.
Early recognition and treatment of sleep apnea is important, as it may be associated with:
Certain mechanical and structural problems in the airway cause the interruptions in breathing during sleep. Apnea happens:
Sleep apnea seems to run in some families, suggesting a possible genetic basis. People most likely to have or develop sleep apnea include those who:
Use of alcohol and sleeping pills increases the frequency and duration of breathing pauses in people with sleep apnea.
In either form of sleep apnea, your breathing pauses a number of times during sleep. These are called apneic events. There may be as many as 20 to 30 or more events per hour. Between events, you may snore. But, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. Sleep apnea may also cause a choking sensation. When breathing starts, you may make a loud snort or gasp. These frequent breaks in deep, restorative sleep often lead to headaches and excessive daytime sleepiness.
Other symptoms include dry mouth or sore throat and problems paying attention.
Diagnosis of sleep apnea is not simple because there can be many different causes. Primary healthcare providers, pulmonologists, neurologists, or other healthcare providers with specialty training in sleep disorders may be involved in making a diagnosis and starting treatment. Several tests are available for evaluating sleep apnea, including:
Diagnostic tests usually are done in a sleep center, but new technology may allow some sleep studies to be done in your home.
Specific treatment will be determined by your healthcare provider based on:
Medicines are generally not effective in the treatment of sleep apnea. Therapy may include the following:
Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. Sleep apnea is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition that is far more common than generally understood.
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