Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. You may have sleep apnea if you snore loudly and you feel tired even after a full night's sleep.
Sleep apnea occurs in two main types:
Additionally, some people have complex sleep apnea, which is a combination of both.
If you think you might have sleep apnea, see your doctor. Treatment is necessary to avoid heart problems and other complications.
The signs and symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas overlap, sometimes making the type of sleep apnea more difficult to determine. The most common signs and symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas include:
When to see a doctor
Many people don't think of snoring as a sign of something potentially serious, and not everyone who has sleep apnea snores. But be sure to talk to your doctor if you experience loud snoring, especially snoring that's punctuated by periods of silence.
Ask your doctor about any sleep problem that leaves you chronically fatigued, sleepy and irritable. Excessive daytime drowsiness (hypersomnia) may be due to other disorders, such as narcolepsy.
Causes of obstructive sleep apnea
When the muscles relax, your airway narrows or closes as you breathe in, and breathing momentarily stops. This may lower the level of oxygen in your blood. Your brain senses this inability to breathe and briefly rouses you from sleep so you can reopen your airway. This awakening is usually so brief that you don't remember it.
You can awaken with a transient shortness of breath that corrects itself quickly, within one or two deep breaths, although this is rare. You may make a snorting, choking or gasping sound. This pattern can repeat itself five to 30 times or more each hour, all night long. These disruptions impair your ability to reach the desired deep, restful phases of sleep, and you'll probably feel sleepy during your waking hours.
People with obstructive sleep apnea may not be aware that their sleep was interrupted. In fact, many people with this type of sleep apnea think they sleep well all night.
Causes of central sleep apnea
Causes of complex sleep apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles that support the soft tissues in your throat, such as your tongue and soft palate, temporarily relax. When these muscles relax, your airway is ...
Sleep apnea may occur if you're young or old, male or female. Even children can have sleep apnea. But certain factors put you at increased risk:
Obstructive sleep apnea
Central sleep apnea
Complex sleep apnea
Sleep apnea is considered a serious medical condition. Complications may include:
People with sleep apnea may also complain of memory problems, morning headaches, mood swings or feelings of depression, a need to urinate frequently at night (nocturia), and impotence. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may be more prevalent in people with sleep apnea. Children with untreated sleep apnea may be hyperactive and may be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Preparing for your appointment
If it's suspected that you have sleep apnea, you're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. However, in some cases when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred immediately to a sleep specialist.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions ahead of time will help you make the most of your visit. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For sleep apnea, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor may make an evaluation based on your signs and symptoms or may refer you to a sleep disorder center. There, a sleep specialist can help you decide on your need for further evaluation. Such an evaluation often involves overnight monitoring of your breathing and other body functions during sleep. Tests to detect sleep apnea may include:
If you have obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor may refer you to an ear, nose and throat doctor (otolaryngologist) to rule out any blockage in your nose or throat. An evaluation by a heart doctor (cardiologist) or a doctor who specializes in the nervous system (neurologist) may be necessary to look for causes of central sleep apnea.
Treatments and drugs
For milder cases of sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or quitting smoking. If these measures don't improve your signs and symptoms or if your apnea is moderate to severe, a number of other treatments are available. Certain devices can help open up a blocked airway. In other cases, surgery may be necessary.
Treatments for obstructive sleep apnea may include:
Removing tissues in the back of your throat with a laser (laser-assisted uvulopalatoplasty) or with radiofrequency energy (radiofrequency ablation) are procedures that doctors sometimes use to treat snoring. Although sometimes these procedures are combined with others, they aren't usually recommended as sole treatments for obstructive sleep apnea.
Other types of surgery may help reduce snoring and contribute to the treatment of sleep apnea by clearing or enlarging air passages:
Treatments for central and complex sleep apnea may include:
Along with these treatments, you may read or hear about different treatments for sleep apnea, such as implants. Although a number of medical devices and procedures have received Food and Drug Administration clearance, there's limited published research regarding how useful they are, and they aren't generally recommended as sole therapies.
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)
For moderate to severe sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend a common therapy device called a nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. A CPAP machine delivers just enough air ...
Lifestyle and home remedies
In many cases, self-care may be the most appropriate way for you to deal with obstructive sleep apnea and possibly central sleep apnea. Try these tips:
Most alternative medicines for sleep apnea have not been well studied. Acupuncture has shown some benefit, but also needs more study. Although it may be used in conjunction with standard treatments, acupuncture should not replace them. Talk to your doctor about any alternative treatment approaches you're considering.
Last Updated: 2010-06-29
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