Sleep apnea is the most common sleep disorder among adults. It is characterized by a person taking one or more pauses in breathing while they sleep. If it’s not pauses it is very shallow breathing.
When you suffer from sleep apnea you make take 30 or more pauses in an hour. After each pause normal breathing starts again, but it may begin with a loud snort or choking sound.
Sleep apnea is an ongoing problem throughout the night and can affect your sleep quality. This can cause daytime sleepiness and in the long term can affect your overall health.
In the long term sleep apnea can put you at a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity and diabetes. If you are already at risk for heart failure, it can worsen with sleep apnea. Your heartbeat may become irregular resulting in arrhythmia.
Forms of Sleep Apnea and Symptoms
The most common form of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. This is when the airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep. This can cause shallow breathing and pauses. The blockage can also cause loud snoring because air is trying to pass the block in the airway.
Another form, but not as common, is central sleep apnea. Unlike obstructive sleep apnea, there is nothing blocking the airway. The signals that are sent from the brain that controls breathing aren’t sent correctly. The incorrectly sent signals can cause your breathing muscles to stop and you body makes no effort to breathe.
Central sleep apnea can affect anybody of any age. Though it is more common among people who have certain medical conditions or use certain medications.
The symptoms for either type of sleep apnea are similar with a few exceptions.
- Loud snoring, but it is more typical with obstructive sleep apnea than central sleep apnea
- Moments of no breathing that is witnessed by another person
- Waking up abruptly and is accompanied by a shortness of breath
- Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
- Morning headache
- Insomnia or difficulty staying asleep
- Trouble staying awake during the day, daytime sleepiness
- Problems paying attention
Diagnosis and Treatment
It is best to go to a medical professional if you experience…
- Loud snoring that disrupts the sleep of others or yourself
- Shortness of breath, choking, or gasping for air when you wake up from your sleep abruptly
- Pauses in your breathing while you sleep
- Excessive daytime drowsiness that affects your ability to concentrate and stay awake
A doctor may diagnose sleep apnea through one or more methods; medical and family histories, a physical exam, and a sleep study. If your primary care doctor believes that you are suffering from sleep apnea they may send you to a sleep specialist after evaluating your symptoms.
In your medical and family histories the doctor may ask you to keep a sleep diary before your next appointment. The sleep diary will log the time you go to sleep, wake, up and take naps. Other information can be how you feel during the day and times you woke up in the middle of the night. The journal will help the doctor get a more in depth understanding.
The doctor may also perform a physical exam. They will check your mouth, nose, and throat for extra or enlarged tissues. Young children who suffer from sleep apnea may have enlarged tonsils. The doctor is able to diagnose them with the physical exam alone and some medical history.
The most accurate way to diagnose sleep apnea is to have a sleep study performed. There are two types of sleep studies and both are painless. All you need to do is sleep like you do normally and let a machine record certain information about you.
The first type of sleep study is a polysomnogram or PSG. Sensors are attached to the body at the scalp, face, chest, limbs, and one of your fingers. The study is performed in a sleep center or a lab because that is where the machine to record information is available.
The machine that the sensors are attached record a lot of data. It will record informatin about brain activity, eye movements, heart rate, and blood pressure. The machine will also record information about your breathing while you sleep. This includes the amount of oxygen in the blood, air movement through the nose and mouth, snoring, and chest movements to ensure your body is trying to breath.
The other type of sleep study is an home-based portable monitor. Some patients may be given this option to get a more accurate reading since they are sleeping in the room and bed they typically sleep in. You will have the sensors placed on your body in the same places as the PSG and the same information is recorded. The machine that monitors you throughout your sleep is much smaller to make it more portable.
After necessary information is gathered from a night of the sleep study a sleep specialist will review the data and decide the best treatment to ensure the best results.
The most common treatment for sleep apnea is a CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure. The CPAP helps breathing by using mild air pressure to keep the airway open during sleep and to stop whatever blockage is occurring to occur.
After the initial sleep study a second one may be performed, but this time using the CPAP machine. This sleep study is called a split-night sleep study. During the first half of the night you will sleep without the CPAP machine. The same information that was collected during the first study is collected again.
After that, the second half of the night is spent with the CPAP machine. Along with the sensors the CPAP machine will be placed over your mouth, nose, or both to help breathing. The information continues to be collected about your sleep.
This process may need to be repeated more than once until the doctor finds the correct pressure of the CPAP machine that will help you the most.