What does it mean when I stop breathing several times during sleep?

This question was asked in Raleigh, North Carolina on 06/04/2012.
I was told by a friend that I stopped breathing at least 9 times during 2 hours of me sleeping. What does this mean? Do I need to see a doctor?

Doctors Answers (4)

Ramie A. Tritt, M.D., FRCSC
Answered on: 6/11/2012

If you stop breathing at least 9 times during 2 hours of sleep, you probably have an obstructive sleep disorder commonly known as sleep apnea. Are you tired upon awakening in the morning? Are you fatigued during the day to the point where you will fall asleep during business meetings? Do you find yourself wanting to take a quick nap or do you sometimes doze off while driving? If you have these or other symptoms suggestive of being excessively tired during the day, you need to be evaluated by a specialist who treats obstructive sleep disorders. You probably need an overnight sleep study to determine whether or not you actually have events of stopping to breathe while sleeping, and the severity of these events if they are occurring. Treatment will depend on the findings after a thorough evaluation is done and the results of an overnight sleep study are available. So in summary: Yes, you need to see a physician who specializes in evaluating patients with obstructive sleep disorders or sleep apnea, such as an Otolaryngology-Head and Neck (ENT) Specialist, who is able to evaluate your breathing passageways, and treat you medically and surgically, as clinically indicated. Good luck in your quest to resolve your problem.

J. Douglas Hudson, MD, DABSM
Answered on: 6/6/2012 1

Stopping breathing while asleep is sleep apnea. It is usually secondary to obstruction of the airway behind the tongue. The tongue and soft palate collapse obstructing airflow to the lungs. There is also another type of apnea called Central Sleep Apnea. This is not common but a sleep study can differentiate the type of apnea. It is generally considered that stopping breathing 5 times per hour is diagnostic of sleep apnea but very shallow breathing (hypopnea) is just as important as a complete cessation of breathing and requires an overnight sleep study to diagnose. Yes, you need to see a doctor.

Syed Nabi, M.D.
Answered on: 6/5/2012 8

That suggests you may have sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition characterized by cessation of airflow during sleep. When we fall asleep just as we lose control of muscles of our arms and legs, we lose control of the muscles of the airway. This leads to the nattering of the airway which causes snoring in some people were heavy breathing and others. As the airway collapses the air does not flow into the lungs. This leads to drop in oxygen level and the heart to pump harder and faster. The brain has to wake up telling the body, ?Hey, wake up.? This leads to destruction in the sleep. Of time most patients develop fatigue and excessive daytime sleepiness as they get deprived of quality sleep. A sleep study usually helps determine the nature of sleep apnea and helps a sleep Dr. make the best plan for the patient. The most effective therapy for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP. Other treatment options include oral devices and surgery. If left untreated sleep apnea usually needs to multiple symptoms including fatigue, excessive sleepiness, mood disorder, headaches, trouble falling or staying asleep, and etc. Untreated sleep apnea in the long run is known to cause diseases of the heart and brain such as high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, Alzheimer's disease, strokes etc.

Richard J. Schumann Jr., MD
Answered on: 6/5/2012 8

Cessation of breathing during sleep due to partial or total upper airway obstruction is not normal and may indicate that you have apnea. If your oxygen desaturation falls below 89% Sa02 (arterial saturation levels) then tissue hypoxia or low blood oxygen can result in damage to the vessels of the hear and lung as well as to the organs themselves. You should be evaluated by a sleep physician to see if formal testing for sleep apnea is warranted. You may find it helpful by refraining from sleeping on your back until then.