What Is Sleep Apnea?

September 12, 2011

ExhaustedWith more and more people being diagnosed with sleep apnea, one of the first questions that you may have is “What is sleep apnea?” The short answer is that it is a failure of the patient to breathe properly while sleeping.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

If you have sleep apnea, you experience pauses in breathing due to one of 2 factors (or a combination of both).

One is the failure of the soft tissues your throat to stay open. This narrows or even blocks the airway and restricts or stops breathing. It is known as obstructive sleep apnea.

The other possibility is failure of the brain to transmit appropriate signals to the diaphragm and  lungs. In this case you simply don’t breathe. This is known as central sleep apnea.

You then wake up (although not fully) and gasp for breath. There is often a choking or snorting sound similar to a quick snore, especially if your apnea is the obstructive type.

A typical patient can experience up to 30 pauses in an hour of sleep — serious cases can be even higher (I measured 52 in my latest test).

Apnea is a chronic condition that leads to poor sleep quality. Each time your breathing is paused, you will wake out of deep REM sleep that your body needs. As a result, even though you may spend 8 hours or more each night “sleeping”, you’re not getting enough rest.

Before I was diagnosed I would fall asleep within 5 seconds of my head hitting the pillow each night. And although I slept for 8 or 9 hours I was never refreshed in the morning. I was always tired and groggy.

Do You Have Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is difficult to diagnose since the breathing pauses do not occur when you are awake. There is nothing a doctor can look at or measure until you are sleeping.

Most people discover they have sleep apnea when their spouse or someone close notices the problem. People with sleep apnea are often tremendous snorers as well. So if your loved ones notice your snoring stops and starts while you sleep then you need to get yourself tested.

To determine whether you have sleep apnea requires a sleeping test. You will be hooked up to several systems and monitored as you sleep. This will help the doctor diagnose your problem and determine the appropriate course of treatment.

The 2 Types of Sleep Apnea

The most common form of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea or OSA. This form of apnea is due to the airway collapsing. While this is often associated with being overweight there are increasing numbers of people being diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea who are not overweight.

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is a less common form. In this case, the cause is quite different. This is a failure of the brain to properly send instructions to the breathing muscles so that the patient just doesn’t try to breathe for a few seconds.

Many people actually have a combination of both types. This can have an impact on treatment since many forms of treatment will only deal with OSA. If you have a combination you will need to look at treatments that can deal with both, such as CPAP.

I Have Sleep Apnea — So What?

If you think you have sleep apnea, then you need to look at what problems it can cause.

Obviously, you will be tired — both physically and mentally. This can affect all areas of your life, but you can learn to adapt for the most part. However, you are at higher risk of physical and mental mistakes which could cause serious accidents. I found myself increasingly drowsy when driving — so much so that I gave up riding my motorcycle.

But other medical issues are more serious. Untreated sleep apnea has been linked to increased blood pressure and increased risk of cardiac problems such as stroke, heart attack and arrhythmia. There are also indications that it can affect sexual performance and even be a factor in depression.

So, if you think you might have sleep apnea you need to see your doctor about it. They can refer you to a specialist who can properly diagnose the disease and provide you with the appropriate treatment.

Bill (LoneWolf) Nickerson

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