What is Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a disorder characterized by a complete or partial cessation of breathing during sleep. The interruptions in breathing, called apneas, can cause a host of other dangerous medical conditions.

There are three types of sleep apnea: central, obstructive, and mixed. In central sleep apnea (CSA), the brain fails to instruct the body to breath. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is far more common than central sleep apnea. In obstructive sleep apnea the upper airway repeatedly collapses during sleep, either completely or partially preventing air from reaching the lungs. Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of central and obstructive.

The gaps in breathing occur between 5 and 100 times per hour depending on the severity of the condition and typically last between 20 and 40 seconds. In some cases, breathing can even stop for several minutes at a time. During each lapse in breathing, oxygen levels in the blood drop. When the brain registers this change, it arouses the body to wake up which reopens the airway but also interrupts sleep. A gasp or choking sound can often be heard as breathing resumes. The person will typically fall back asleep with no memory of being woken up which makes sleep apnea hard to recognize. The condition is typically identified by spouses or family members who notice heavy snoring and gaps in breathing.

As a result of repeatedly being woken up throughout the night, the person fails to sustain deep sleep and may feel tired throughout the day. OSA is associated with obesity, hypertension, stroke, memory problems, difficulty concentrating, mood disturbance, anxiety, and depression. Obstructive sleep apnea can be fully treated.

What causes sleep apnea?

The muscles in the body become relaxed during sleep. When throat muscles relax, they can block the airway and prevent oxygen from entering the lungs. The obstructions typically occur where the uvula meets the back of the airway, or where the tongue meets the back of the airway.

When the obstruction is partial, snoring becomes louder as air struggles to pass in and out of the lungs. When the obstruction is complete, the person completely stops breathing and is silent. When the brain registers that the person has stopped breathing, it reacts by jolting the body. This causes the person to wake up and stiffen the throat muscles, removing the obstruction. A gasp or choking sound can often be heard as the person begins to breathe again. The person rarely remembers waking up.

Certain anatomical characteristics make the airway more susceptible to collapse. A large tongue, enlarged tonsils (especially in children) and an extended palette, and an enlarged uvula all increase the chances of obstruction. Individuals with overbites or small, receding jawlines are more likely to have their airway blocked. Alcohol, sedatives, and some medications can also increase the likelihood of obstruction by inducing relaxation of the throat muscles. As individuals age and their muscles become less taught, their risk of obstruction is elevated.

There are also certain factors that narrow the circumference of the airway itself, making obstruction more likely. Excess deposits of fat around the neck area—those with necklines that are 16 inches or more—can reduce the girth of the airway. Men, who on average have a higher BMI (body-mass index) than women, are more likely to have sleep apnea. Another factor that narrows the airway is smoking. Smoking can irritate the back of the throat and narrow the airway.

There is also a strong genetic component to sleep apnea. Those with family members who have sleep apnea are at higher risk of having sleep apnea themselves.

Is it dangerous to Snore?

We’re used to thinking of snoring as a problem that primarily affects the frustrated bed-partners of snorers rather than snorers themselves. But snoring can indicate serious medical problems that can result in illness and even death if not properly treated.

The National Sleep Foundation found that about one third of U.S. working adults report snoring at least a few nights each month. Snoring generally worsens with age so the rate increases among the elderly. Contrary to common perceptions, it’s nearly as common in women as men. Menopause and being overweight are important factors. Yet many who regularly snore don’t realize that it could be bad for their health.

According to the scientific literature, snorers experience

  • A higher incidence of stroke and cardiovascular disorders;
  • A 40 percent greater risk than non-snorers of suffering from high blood pressure;
  • A 34 percent greater risk of having a heart attack; and
  • A 67 percent greater chance of having a stroke.

What causes snoring?

Sleep Apnea, a disruption of breathing while asleep is often the cause of loud snoring. The sleep and oxygen deprivation experienced by someone with sleep apnea can have a significant impact on their well-being. 50% of those with loud snoring suffer from sleep apnea and should be checked and treated. Snoring occurs because of an obstruction or a narrowing of the airway. The more the airway narrows or is blocked, the harder the body has to work to push air out, putting increased pressure on the heart. Over time, this increased pressure on the heart will have a detrimental effect on the heart muscle, leading to conditions such as high blood pressure, heart attack or stroke.

The research linking hypertension, heart problems and loud snoring is relatively new and awareness of sleep apnea is growing. But it is a condition that remains vastly undertreated.

What should you do if you or someone you know snores?

Contact us to schedule an evaluation.

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