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What is Sleep Apnea?

Doctorpedia Editorial Team Doctorpedia Editorial Team June 15, 2021
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

You wake up gasping for air.  Your spouse complains that your snoring wakes them up. Your trips to the bathroom at night are getting more and more frequent. You wake up with a dry mouth and a headache. To top it all off, you feel unrested and are in a foul mood every morning.  

 

If this sounds just like you, you may have sleep apnea. It’s time to see your doctor and maybe even a sleep specialist for an evaluation.

 

What is Sleep Apnea?

 

The word “apnea” is Greek, and, literally translated, means “without breath.” If you have sleep apnea, you actually stop breathing while you’re asleep, and your brain jerks your body awake to remind it to breathe. That’s why you don’t feel rested in the morning–you aren’t getting enough sleep.

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Sleep Apnea - Definition

Sleep Apnea - Definition

Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea

 

These factors all play a part in developing sleep apnea:

 

  • Age: The older you are, the more likely you are to have sleep apnea.
  • Weight: The heavier you are, the more likely you are to develop sleep apnea.
  • Family history: If you have family members with sleep apnea, you are at risk.
  • Enlarged adenoids and/or tonsils: These organs at the back of the nose and throat can swell up and stop you from breathing while you’re asleep.
  • Smoking: Anything that interferes with your breathing can affect your ability to breathe while you sleep.
  • Alcohol and sleeping medication use: These substances can relax the muscles in the back of your throat to the point where it’s difficult to breathe while you’re sleeping.

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Sleep Apnea - Risk Factors

Sleep Apnea - Risk Factors

Forms of Sleep Apnea

 

There are different types of sleep apnea. Knowing which kind you have can help your healthcare team work with you to decide on the best type of treatment.

 

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea. The most common form of sleep apnea manifests as interrupted breathing during sleep, due to complete or partial obstruction of the airways. This mostly affects adults more as they age, is associated with obesity, and happens more often in men than in women. However, even fit individuals and children can have obstructive sleep apnea as a result of enlarged adenoids, enlarged tonsils, or any condition that would restrict breathing while sleeping, including a possible genetic predisposition, that results in less oxygen getting into the blood. This type of apnea can be mild, moderate, or severe, depending on how many episodes (interruptions of sleep) occur per hour while you sleep. The long-term health risks include high blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmia, and an increased risk of heart attack, diabetes, and stroke. 
  • Central Sleep Apnea. This rarer form of apnea occurs due to medical conditions affecting the brainstem where the brain stops sending signals to the muscles that control your breathing. It is more common in patients that have a heart condition or have suffered a stroke. Ironically, this type of apnea can develop as a result of using a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device to help with obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Mixed Sleep Apnea. This type of apnea is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea. It often happens when patients being treated for obstructive sleep apnea develop central sleep apnea because they are using a CPAP device. One of the methods to prevent this is to keep the CPAP device at the lowest setting possible, maintaining airflow and keeping airways free but preventing the development of central sleep apnea.

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Pediatric Sleep Apnea – CPAP

Pediatric Sleep Apnea – CPAP

Diagnosing Sleep Apnea

 

Until now, a patient would most likely answer a questionnaire detailing their symptoms and stay overnight in a “sleep lab,” hooked up to monitors, while his or her sleep patterns are measured.

 

But sleep study labs may be a thing of the past. With home sleep apnea testing (HSAT), you can be assessed at home for this condition. After a briefing from the healthcare team, the patient can perform the diagnostic tests from the comfort of their own bed. This system utilizes a cell phone and software to analyze the results. Though mobile phones have been used for over a decade to collect data for sleep apnea utilizing an external and self-applied sensor, today’s cell phones with high storage capacity and the ability to transfer collected information via cloud lets the patient transmit this information from anywhere in the world within seconds of its collection.

 

Depending on the type of sleep apnea you have, there are several types of treatment available. And now, you have many choices of the kind of technology you’d like to use to help you get the sleep you need.

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