What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is characterized by repeated interruptions in breathing throughout the sleep cycle — “apnea” means a temporary halt in breathing. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of sleep apnea. OSA occurs when soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses and blocks the airway, hindering oxygen intake. Left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to serious problems, including chronic fatigue, depression, high blood pressure, heart attack, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia and stroke.
Common causes of sleep apnea include:
- Alcohol or sedative use
- Neck circumference — Narrow airways are more common with thicker necks.
- Structural or anatomical issues, such as large tonsils or a narrow airway
Sleep apnea can affect anyone. Symptoms include:
- Daytime sleepiness — People frequently report feeling tired as a result of inadequate sleep, and may have a headache upon waking.
- Depression, irritability, and decreased memory, attention, concentration and verbal skills — These can all result from not getting enough rest.
- Gasping during sleep — Pauses in breathing can cause people to gasp for breath.
- Pauses in breathing — Patients may stop breathing for a few seconds to more than a minute while they sleep.
- Snoring loudly — Collapsed soft tissue in the back of the throat leads to snoring.
Most often, sleep apnea is diagnosed with a sleep study, conducted either at home or a specialized sleep center. Once diagnosed, patients can begin treatment that might include:
- Lifestyle changes — Obesity is a contributing factor to sleep apnea, so maintaining a healthy weight through diet and regular physical activity can help with the apnea. Limiting alcohol and quitting smoking can improve apnea symptoms.
- Improving sleep hygiene — Creating a cool, dark sleep environment and limiting electronic use before bed can improve sleep quality.
If lifestyle changes aren’t enough, doctors may recommend additional treatments, such as: