Sleep ApneaThere is far more to sleep apnea than tossing, turning, and snoring like a hog. Many people do not know they have sleep apnea or what it is. Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder first described in 1965 and named for the Greek word meaning “want of breath,” and, if you are suffering from it, you need to get the proper treatment as soon as possible.

What is sleep apnea?

There are two types of sleep apnea: central and obstructive. The less common of the two, central, occurs when the brain fails to send the correct signals to the breathing muscles to induce respiration. Obstructive, which is far more common, happens when your tongue, tonsils, or other tissues in the back of your throat block your airway.

People with this disorder may actually stop breathing up to 400 times a night, and these interruptions last 10 to 30 seconds. This can be characterized as a choking sensation and is usually followed by a snort when breathing starts again, waking the individual up. Excessive daytime sleepiness, headaches, heart attack, stroke, car accidents, and job related injuries have all been linked to interrupted sleep caused by sleep apnea.

Who gets sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea can occur in men and women of all age groups, however it is more commonly diagnosed in men over the age of 40. Doctors estimate that 4% of middle-aged men and 2% of middle-aged women suffer from this sleep disorder. It has also been estimated that as many as 18 million Americans have sleep apnea. It is also common to run in families, and you’re more likely to get it if you are male, overweight, Latino, or African-American.

When would sleep apnea be suspected?

A patient may not be aware of his or her condition. Often it is a spouse who notices the disruption in sleep by excessive snoring or the apparent struggle to breath. Friends and coworkers may suspect something is wrong when they notice the individual falling asleep at inappropriate times, such as at their desk, in meetings, while having a conversation, or while driving.

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

Diagnostic tests are usually performed in a sleep center, but with new technology the test is more often being performed at home. In order to diagnose sleep apnea and determine its severity, a Polysomnography evaluation is given to the patient. This test records a wide variety of body functions during sleep, such as blood pressure, brain activity, oxygen levels, heart rate, breathing airflow, eye movement, and muscle activity.

How is sleep apnea treated?

Your doctor may prescribe CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) therapy. This treatment keeps your airway open during the night by gently providing a constant stream of air through a mask you wear while you sleep. Because this treatment is required every night, and even during naps, this is a lifestyle change and commitment. Missing even one night can have an negative impact on your blood pressure. Changing other lifestyle habits may also have a positive effect on your sleep, such as exercise and weight loss, reducing your alcohol intake before bed, and staying away from sleeping pills.

Dental appliance therapy is a great alternative to CPAP therapy. Using a small plastic device, similar to mouth guards used in sports, it prevents the tongue and other soft tissue from blocking off the airway. Many find this a more comfortable experience than wearing a mask while sleeping at night.

There are also surgical procedures that may benefit patients with this disorder, although none of them have been proven completely successful or without risk.

If you suspect that you may be suffering from sleep apnea, make an appointment to have your physician run some diagnostic tests. Sleep is extremely important for us to survive and once you receive treatment you can get back to counting uninterrupted sheep and wake up feeling rested and refreshed.