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Sleep Apnea is a serious sleep disorder in which the sleeper has pauses in breathing. These gaps in breath cause the sleeper to wake up, usually not to his or her awareness. Unfortunately, in severe cases, not waking up to resume breathing can cause death. The name of the disorder comes from the Greek, "a pnoia," meaning "absence of breath."
Sleep Apnea is more common in men, but anyone can have it. It has been estimated that 18 million Americans have sleep apnea. 4% of middle aged men and 2% of middle aged women have sleep apnea. (1)
The apneas last anywhere from 10 seconds to 2 minutes. For those with sleep apnea, the apnea index (AI), or minimum number of apnea per hour of sleep, is 5. Apneas are verified with a polysomnogram. Some sleep apnea patients experience 20 to 30 apneas per hour! (1)
Often those with sleep apnea are not aware that they have a problem. Many times a bed partner will complain of the sufferer's loud, constant, and disturbing snoring. Occasionally the spouse may hear the sleeper gasping for breath and wake him up to ask, "are you okay?". Some sufferers of sleep apnea will have daytime fatigue due to the disturbed sleep during the night.
Read about M.S., a middle-aged man's experience with sleep apnea.
There are two different types of sleep apnea. Central Sleep Apnea is a condition in which the sleeper's brain does not send the needed signals to the breathing muscles. This type is not as common as Obstructive Sleep Apnea.
With Obstructive Sleep Apnea the reason for the pauses in breathing is that the patient's airway is blocked. Muscles in the throat that hold the uvula and tonsils in place relax during sleep. In patients with sleep apnea, the muscles relax too much, and block the passage way for air to reach the lungs.
It is thought that Sleep apnea may be genetic. (1) There seem to be some factors that may increase likeliness to develop sleep apnea, such as snoring, being overweight, having high blood pressure, or having a physical feature that may block the airway.
Sleep apnea is treatable. If one has sleep apnea, it is very important to find that out. If you think you might have sleep apnea or if someone complains about your snoring, it would be a very good idea to see a doctor about it. Your doctor will be able to point you in the right direction and find the right kind of treatment for you.
Treating the problem improperly can lead to dire consequences. Some sleeping pills for example, stop the sleeper from awakening in the night from the apneas, which makes it more difficult for the sleeper to resume breathing.
Currently, the best treatment seems to be the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. This machine supplies air pressures through a tube connected to a mask that the sleeper wears during the night. [picture] Air is blown through the mouth into the airway, forcing it to remain open, and allowing air to reach the lungs.
Unfortunately, the CPAP machine does not work for everybody. Even though there are many different styles of masks from which the patients can choose, some just can't adapt to wear any mask while sleeping.
Other things can be done to improve breathing during night. Weight loss can significantly reduce the frequency of apneas. Avoiding sleeping on the back also reduces severity of sleep apnea. Checking for allergies and increasing the humidity of the room can also be beneficial. (2)
There are some surgical procedures available to improve sleep apnea, but they aren't always effective either. Research is currently being done as better treatment possibilities for sleep apnea are being investigated.
(1) "Facts About Sleep Apnea." InteliHealth, The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. 1997 (Feb. 1999) URL: http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH?t=7066&c=33086&p=~br,IHW|~st,408|~r,WSIHW000|~b,*|&d=dmtContent
(2) "The Wonders of Snoring." New Technology Publishing, Inc., 1998. (Nov. 1998) URL: http://www.newtechpub.com/phantom/snore/snoring.htm
(3) Charts taken from: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/prof/sleep/slpaprsk.pdf, which is can be downloaded at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/prof/sleep/slpaprsk.htm (public domain)[an error occurred while processing this directive]