What is sleep apnea?
Apnea is a medical word for "not breathing." Sleep apnea is when your breathing slows or stops for a short time while you're sleeping and then restarts.
This happens over and over each time you sleep, often many times an hour. You wake up partway when your breathing stops. When you wake up, you start breathing again. Usually you don't remember waking up. However, it still breaks up a good night's sleep.
People with sleep apnea usually snore loudly at night and are very tired during the day
Doctors usually do a sleep study if they suspect sleep apnea
Doctors may treat you with a breathing machine connected to a mask (CPAP machine How do doctors treat sleep apnea? Apnea is a medical word for "not breathing." Sleep apnea is when your breathing slows or stops for a short time while you're sleeping and then restarts. This happens over and over each time... read more ), with a mouthpiece, or sometimes with surgery
If you're not treated, you have an increased risk of high blood pressure High Blood Pressure Each heart beat pushes blood through your arteries. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to your body. Blood pressure is the pressure of blood in your arteries. Without... read more , stroke Stroke A stroke is a sudden brain problem that happens when a blood vessel in your brain either gets blocked or breaks open and bleeds. Part of your brain stops getting blood. Brain tissue that doesn't... read more , and heart disease Overview of Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) The heart is a muscle that pumps blood. Like all muscles, the heart needs a steady supply of blood to work. Blood that pumps through the heart doesn't feed the heart muscle. Instead the heart... read more
What causes sleep apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type. It happens when your throat closes up when your muscles relax during sleep.
Your risk of having obstructive sleep apnea is higher if the back of your mouth and throat is narrow to begin with. This is more common if you:
Have a short, thick neck and round head
Have a large tongue, adenoids (tissue at the back of your throat where your throat and nasal passages meet), or tonsils (tissue on both sides of your throat)
Your body is more likely to be built this way if you:
Are a man
Other risk factors for sleep apnea include:
Drinking large amounts of alcohol
Using sedatives (medicines to help you sleep or be calm)
What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?
You don't usually notice anything wrong while you're sleeping, but someone sleeping in your room probably does. That person may hear you:
Make gasping, gurgling, or choking sounds
Snore very loudly
Stop breathing for 10 seconds or more at a time
Be very restless in bed
Even though you don't notice anything while you sleep, you may feel bad during the day. You may:
Have a headache when you wake up
Feel sleepy, weak, and tired all day
Think slowly and have trouble concentrating
Fall asleep during the day when you want to be awake, such as at work or while driving
Most adults who snore don't have obstructive sleep apnea. But if you have sleep apnea, you're likely to snore.
Complications of obstructive sleep apnea
You don't get enough oxygen during the times you're not breathing. Because you start breathing again, this isn't enough to hurt you right away. However, after a while, the low oxygen levels can cause problems:
Increased risk of stroke Stroke A stroke is a sudden brain problem that happens when a blood vessel in your brain either gets blocked or breaks open and bleeds. Part of your brain stops getting blood. Brain tissue that doesn't... read more , heart attack Heart Attack A heart attack is when blood flow to part of your heart is suddenly blocked and some of your heart muscle dies. Doctors use the term myocardial infarction to refer to a heart attack. Myocardium... read more , and heart rhythm problems Overview of Abnormal Heart Rhythms Your heart is a muscle that pumps blood through your body. Your heart rate is how fast your heart beats. Your heart should always have a regular, rhythmic beat, like the ticking of a clock.... read more
Sometimes, premature death
How can doctors tell if I have sleep apnea?
Your doctor will usually do a test while you're sleeping. The test is called polysomnography Testing The most commonly reported sleep-related problems are insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness. Insomnia is difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, waking up early, or a disturbance in... read more or a "sleep study."
You may have to go to a special sleep center for the sleep study. Sometimes your doctor will have you do a simpler version at home. In both cases, you'll wear monitors on your head, body, and hand while you sleep. The monitors track your:
Oxygen level in your blood
Breathing while you're asleep
These tests don't hurt, but you may find it hard to sleep with all the monitors. Technicians watch you on a video monitor.
Doctors may do other tests to see if your sleep apnea is causing other problems, such as heart problems.
How do doctors treat sleep apnea?
To treat obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor may:
Give you a CPAP machine to help you breathe while you sleep
Give you a mouthpiece that helps keep your airway open during sleep
Sometimes do surgery on the back of your mouth to remove and reshape tissue
Surgically place a device to help keep your airway open
A CPAP machine pushes air into your throat through a mask. The pressurized air keeps your throat from closing. There are different masks. Some cover your mouth and nose. Others cover only your nose or fit inside your nose (like nose plugs). CPAP works very well, but many people aren't able to sleep well because of the mask.
Mouthpieces are plastic devices that fit over your teeth. You wear them at night. They're a little like the mouth guards that some athletes wear for sports. The mouthpieces are adjusted to pull your jaw forward. Pulling your jaw forward helps keep your throat from closing. A dentist makes the mouthpiece specially to fit your mouth.
Doctors will also have you do other things:
Lose weight if you're overweight or obese
Avoid drinking alcohol
Avoid medicines that cause drowsiness before bed
Sleep on your side or raise the head of your bed
Sometimes, take medicine to help you stay awake during the day