Sleep apnea is a disorder in which your breathing is interrupted for periods of 10 seconds or more while you are asleep. These interruptions may occur hundreds of times a night, causing you to gasp for air and disrupting your sleep.
Roughly one in every 15 North Americans are affected by at least moderate sleep apnea. It also estimated that in middle-age as many as 9% of women and 24% of men were affected, undiagnosed and untreated.
Sleep apnea is diagnosed with an overnight sleep test called a polysomnogram, or “sleep study”.
Some common symptoms of sleep apnea include:
- Restless sleep
- Loud, heavy snoring often interrupted by silence and gasps
- Drowsiness or lack of energy, caused by the lack of sleep
- Headaches in the morning
- Irritability, forgetfulness, mood or behavior changes
- Anxiety or depression
There are two main types of sleep apnea:
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea — This type of sleep apnea is typically caused by an airway blockage and is more common. It occurs when the muscles in the wall of the throat relax during sleep, causing the walls to collapse and obstruct airflow.
- Central Sleep Apnea — Believed to be related to a malfunction of the brain’s normal signal to breathe, with this type of sleep apnea the level of carbon dioxide in the blood rises, which may cause you to wake up.
If sleep apnea is not treated, it can lead to other serious health problems, including:
- Hypertension or high blood pressure
- Heart related conditions such as coronary artery disease, myocardial infarction and stroke
- Psychiatric problems such as depression
- Impotence and lack of interest in sex
- Cognitive dysfunction or memory loss
Some treatments involve lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol or muscle relaxants, losing weight, and quitting smoking. Many people benefit from sleeping with the upper body at a 30-degree elevation or higher, as if in a recliner. Doing so helps prevent the gravitational collapse of the airway. Sleeping on your side, as opposed to sleeping on your back, is also recommended as a treatment for sleep apnea.
Some people benefit from various kinds of oral appliances to keep the airway open during sleep. “Breathing machines” like the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) may help. There are also surgical procedures to widen the airway and remove and tighten tissue.