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What is Sleep Apnea?

Your nights may be restless, and your spouse is threatening that your snoring is going to move you into another bedroom. Your days find you tired, with early morning headaches, confusion when you awaken and perhaps even occasional hallucinations. These are some typical complaints of someone suffering from sleep apnea.

What is sleep apnea?
" Apnea" means a suspension of breathing. Thus, sleep apnea refers to a cessation of breathing during sleep. Those who suffer from sleep apnea stop breathing many times at night when they are asleep and unaware that this is happening. Anyone can suffer from sleep apnea, but it is most commonly found in overweight males. Perhaps as many as one-third of Americans over the age of 60 develop sleep apnea, and most of them don't even realize they have it.

What causes sleep apnea?
The underlying cause of sleep apnea is still unknown. However, researchers believe that it is associated with the central nervous system.

There are two differing types of sleep apnea:

Central Sleep Apnea
Some people who complain of insomnia are actually suffering from sleep apnea. Central Sleep Apnea causes sufferers to awaken several times during the night. As the person falls asleep, the brain stops sending messages to the diaphragm telling it to move. When the diaphragm stops moving, breathing ceases and the person awakens.

Upper Airway Sleep Apnea
In this more common type of sleep apnea, the muscles of the tongue, throat and larynx lose their healthy elasticity during sleep. Thus, when the throat is collapsed, airflow through the trachea is blocked.

What symptoms are associated with sleep apnea?
Many sleep apnea symptoms occur during sleep, and the sleep apnea sufferer is totally unaware that these symptoms occur.
  • Frequent partial awakenings
  • During episodes of apnea, after sleep deepens, breathing stops until the person partially awakens, at which time breathing resumes and the cycle is repeated
  • Loud snoring, occurring as the person begins to breathe at the end of an apnea episode
  • Difficulty in awakening the person during apnea episodes. If suddenly awakened, the person does not know where they are
Some symptoms, such as the ones listed below, are common in people suffering from sleep apnea when they are awake:
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness, causing changes in the person's awareness, judgment and emotions. With upper airway sleep apnea, because the person is unaware of the symptoms at night, they have no explanation for why they are so tired during the day. Those who suffer from central sleep apnea attribute their sleepiness to the awareness that they awoke numerous times during the night
  • Early morning headaches
  • Hallucinations, occurring when the person is very sleepy
  • Disorientation, occurring after the person awakens. This is often called the "foggy mind" state
How does sleep apnea affect the circulatory system?
The heart, brain and other vital tissues are periodically deprived of oxygenated blood. Blood pressure in the arteries rises sharply, and the heart slows down and may even stop for up to 8 seconds. Elevated blood pressure caused by sleep apnea may remain elevated during the daytime. In severe cases, abnormal physical conditions can cause death.

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?
A medical examination of a person suffering from sleep apnea may reveal no physical abnormalities while the person is awake. The condition is best detected by examining/observing the person while they are asleep. At The Sleep Diagnostic Center of Inland Hospital, specially trained technicians monitor the person's sleep. Results from the sleep tests, a sleep questionnaire, and past medical information are used to help ensure a precise diagnosis.

How is sleep apnea treated?
There are several ways to treat sleep apnea:
  • Behavior Modification: to assist with weight reduction
  • Medications: used to reduce apnea episodes during sleep
  • CPAP Mask: a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure mask can be worn to bed at night to keep the airway passage open
  • Surgery: can be performed to open the airway passage