Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that affects more than 22 million people in the United States alone. This condition is characterized by repeated interruptions in breathing during sleep, often leading to a reduction in the quality of sleep and a feeling of daytime exhaustion. The term “apnea” literally means “absence of breath.”
The most common form of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which occurs when the tissues in the back of the throat collapse during sleep, obstructing the airflow. When this happens, the brain wakes the person up to restart breathing, usually without the individual realizing it. This process can happen up to hundreds of times per night, leading to restless sleep and daytime drowsiness.
Risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea include being obese, having a narrow airway, smoking, and certain medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma. Men are more likely to develop OSA than women, especially as they age.
Symptoms of sleep apnea include loud snoring, gasping or choking during sleep, waking up with a headache, feeling groggy or fatigued during the day, and difficulty concentrating or staying awake. Children with sleep apnea may have bedwetting, difficulty waking up, and behavioral problems.
Left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to serious health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. It can also increase the risk of accidents and injuries due to daytime drowsiness.
To diagnose sleep apnea, a sleep study is usually recommended. This involves spending a night at a sleep center, where sensors and monitors are used to record breathing patterns, heart rate, and other vital signs during sleep. A sleep specialist can then determine the severity of sleep apnea, and recommend appropriate treatment.
Treatment for sleep apnea may include lifestyle changes such as weight loss or quitting smoking, as well as medical interventions such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy or oral appliances. Surgery may be recommended in severe cases.
CPAP therapy involves wearing a mask over the nose and/or mouth during sleep, which delivers a steady stream of air to keep the airway open. Oral appliances can also be used to reposition the jaw and tongue, helping to prevent airway obstruction.
With proper treatment, most people with sleep apnea can improve their quality of life and reduce their risk of developing serious health problems. If you suspect you or a loved one may have sleep apnea, it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider about possible diagnosis and treatment options.