Lifestyle

Sleep apnea questions and answers

Sleep apnea is a debilitating and life-shortening ailment that affects millions of people across the globe, many of whom do not know they have this potentially dangerous condition. Understanding sleep apnea and its symptoms and risk factors is imperative for men and women who feel they have or may someday have sleep apnea.

What is sleep apnea?

The word “apnea” is Greek and means “without breath.” Sleep apnea occurs involuntarily and unexpectedly while a person is asleep. It causes a person to stop breathing repeatedly while sleeping -- sometimes hundreds of times a night -- estimates the American Sleep Apnea Association. These moments of breathlessness can last a minute or longer and may not trigger a full awakening in a person.

There are different types of sleep apnea. The main types are obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Obstructive apnea is more common and occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax during sleep and inhibit air flow. With central sleep apnea, a person’s brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing. Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

During an episode of sleep apnea, the body may rouse itself partially to resume breathing but not enough to fully awaken the person. As a result, sleep may be very fragmented and sufferers could feel extremely tired during the day and not understand why.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Individuals who may be experiencing sleep apnea may have the following symptoms, according to The Mayo Clinic:

• excessive daytime sleepiness

• loud snoring

• awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat

• headaches in the morning

• problems paying attention

• difficulty staying asleep

Others may notice a spouse or family member has sleep apnea by recognizing abrupt awakenings from shortness of breath or intermittent pauses in his or her breathing during sleep. Also, it is important to note that snoring may not be a sign of sleep apnea, but very often loud snoring punctuated by periods of silence is a pretty good indicator of apnea.

Risk Factors

Many people experience sleep apnea, though it may be more pronounced in certain groups of people. Those who are overweight may have obstructions to breathing. People with a thick neck also may have a narrower airway. Genetics also may play a role in a narrow airway in the throat or enlarged adenoids or tonsils that contribute to airway obstruction.

Men are twice as likely to have sleep apnea as women, and men who are older than age 60 have an increased risk over younger men.

Smokers are three times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea over people who have never smoked. That’s because, according to the Mayo Clinic, inflammation and mucus retention may occur in the upper airway.

People who naturally have difficulty breathing through the nose may be at a higher risk for sleep apnea.

Treatments

After being tested for sleep apnea, which usually involves some sort of sleep test, whether at home or a nocturnal polysonmography that measures heart, lung and brain activity is conducted at a sleep center, a doctor may refer patients to an ear, nose and throat doctor if there is a physical obstruction causing the apnea. Recommendations may include losing weight, quitting smoking and other lifestyle changes if these are thought to be the primary causes behind the apnea.

Therapies for obstructive sleep apnea can include continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, which uses a machine to deliver continuous air pressure into the nose and mouth to keep air passages open. There are other air pressure devices as well. Surgery, including implants or creating a new air passageway via a tracheostomy, may be necessary in severe cases that don’t respond to other treatments.

Sleep apnea is not a condition to take lightly. It affects millions of people and requires action to prevent other maladies resulting from lack of oxygen to the body.

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