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Sleep Apnea Overview
Sleep apnea is an extremely common sleep disorder condition that causes the affected individual to stop breathing or breathe very shallowly while sleeping. Depending on the person, pauses in breathing may last from just a couple seconds to several minutes, and can occur up to 40 times an hour, or more. Breathing usually starts again without completely waking up the person, but others in the room or nearby will usually hear a loud noise coming from the person’s airway passages, as if he or she were choking.
Sleep apnea is a chronic condition that must be treated in order to control its symptoms, but many people never learn of their condition and therefore fail to seek out treatment. Irregular breathing patterns caused by sleep apnea can affect how well-rested a person feels upon waking. The pauses in breathing prevent the body from achieving deep sleep or natural REM (rapid eye movement) cycles, which can make a person especially tired during the day. There are two main types of sleep apnea: central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea. The two types can occur alone or simultaneously.
Central Sleep Apnea
Central sleep apnea is characterized by the brain’s inability to send out the right chemical signals to allow a body to breathe normally during sleep. The muscles in the body of a central sleep apnea patient will simply not attempt to breathe during brief intervals at night. The condition is much less common among sleep apnea patients than obstructive sleep apnea and often remains undiagnosed because it does not typically cause snoring as a symptom and can be hard to detect. While it can affect anybody, central sleep apnea is more likely to occur in patients on certain medications or patients being treated for another medical condition.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
The more common cause of sleep apnea is obstruction, blockage or collapse of the airway passage during sleep—a condition known more specifically as obstructive sleep apnea. Air from the surround air or from the lungs struggles to squeeze past whatever is causing the obstruction, which often results in loud snoring that comes from deep within the body as well as the loud, choking noises that occur periodically as a sleep apnea patient sleeps at night. While obstructive sleep apnea can affect people of all shapes, sizes, ages and gender—it is much more common in patients who are overweight or have enlarged tonsils that block their airways.
Finding the Right Treatment for Sleep Apnea Symptoms
Detecting signs that a person has sleep apnea can be quite difficult. Most patients, unaware of their behavior during sleep, must be told that they have trouble breathing at night by a partner or roommate who overhears or otherwise notices their physical struggle. Sleep doctors cannot diagnose it during regular physical exams, and blood tests to detect sleep apnea do not exist.
Allowing sleep apnea to continue untreated for too long has some negative medical effects, including but not limited to increasing your chances of being diagnosed with high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, heart attack and obesity. Sleep deprivation over time can also be dangerous for daily function and may lead to depression or increased stress. If you notice symptoms of sleep deprivation or excessive daytime sleepiness and feel confused about the cause, you may want to sign up for a polysomnogram, or overnight sleep study test, so that you may move forward with proper treatment. Possible sleep apnea treatments include special devices and CPAP masks to help you breathe regularly at night and surgery to open up your airway passages, along with several CPAP alternatives.