Sleep apnea (also spelt as sleep apnoea) is not just snoring or feeling tired during the day – it is a serious medical condition.
Sleep apnea is a serious but common sleep disorder that causes your breathing to become shallow or stop completely during sleep. In some cases, this pause in breathing can last 10 seconds or longer and it can occur 30 times or more in an hour.
According to American Journal of Epidemiology in data published on May 1 of 2013, 30 million people in the United States have sleep apnea. This report suggests that the disorder is significantly more prevalent in men, affecting approximately 14 percent of males and five percent of females.
All sleep apnea is characterized by repeated interruptions in breathing, but the underlying cause of the breathing interruptions vary.
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of sleep apnea, and it occurs when there is a partial or complete obstruction of the airway.
When we sleep, the muscles in our body, including those in our throat, naturally become relaxed. Normally, the airway remains open enough for air to enter freely during sleep. But in cases of obstructive sleep apnea, your airway is too narrow (sometimes because of the way you are born and other times because body weight creates extra fat deposits in the throat), and when you relax your muscles in your sleep, the tissues in the back of your throat can block your airway.
This airway blockage can cause loud snoring, snorting, or gasping for air during sleep (though not everyone with obstructive sleep apnea snores and not everyone who snores has sleep apnea).
Central sleep apnea occurs when something goes awry with the brain’s normal signaling to muscles that control breathing in the body, causing breathing to repeatedly stop or become very shallow.
Unlike obstructive sleep apnea, which is caused by a physical blockage, central sleep apnea is a neurological problem.
People who have central sleep apnea often have an illness or condition that affects the brainstem, which is the area of the brain that controls breathing. Health conditions linked to central sleep apnea include Parkinson’s disease, stroke, heart failure, or brain infection. Certain medications that interfere with how well the brain sends signals to muscles, such as sedatives, opioids, or benzodiazepines, can also play a role in central sleep apnea, says Dr. Capasso.
Complex sleep apnea syndrome happens when someone has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea at the same time.
People who have this type of sleep apnea often seem at first to have only obstructive sleep apnea; but when they are treated for that condition (usually a breathing machine that gently pushes air into your airway during sleep using a mask that fits over your nose and mouth) and their sleep apnea doesn’t improve as much as expect, doctors realize that there is also central sleep apnea present.
Am I at Risk for Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea can affect anyone at any age, even children. Risk factors for sleep apnea include:
- Being male
- Being overweight
- Being over age 40
- Having a large neck size (17 inches or greater in men and 16 inches or greater in women)
- Having large tonsils, a large tongue, or a small jaw bone
- Having a family history of sleep apnea
- Gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD
- Nasal obstruction due to a deviated septum, allergies, or sinus problems
Symptoms of sleep apnoea
People with significant sleep apnoea have an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents and high blood pressure, and may have an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. In the over-30 age group, the disorder is about three times more common in men than women. Some of the associated symptoms include:
- daytime sleepiness, fatigue and tiredness
- poor concentration
- irritability and mood changes
- impotence and reduced sex drive
- need to get up to toilet frequently at night.