Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or take shallow breaths while you sleep. These pauses can last from a few seconds to several minutes and may occur many times every hour. After the pause, breathing starts again, often with a loud snort or choking sound that is very disruptive to a sleeping partner.
In obstructive sleep apnea, during the pause, the tissues in the upper airway are closed or partially closed. Sleeping may be disrupted each time apnea occurs. The result is poor sleep quality that makes you tired and sleepy during the day. Many cases of sleep apnea go undiagnosed. The breathing pauses occur during sleep and most patients with this condition discover it by going to their primary care provider at the urging of a family member.
It's estimated that more than 12 million American adults have sleep apnea. Several factors may increase the chances of your having this condition:
- Sleep apnea is more common in men, but once women go through menopause, they are just as likely as men to develop the condition.
- It is more common as people get older.
- African Americans and Hispanics are more prone to sleep apnea.
- If other family members have sleep apnea, your risk increases.
- Smoking increases your risk.
- High blood pressure increases your risk.
- If you have small airways in your nose, mouth or throat, the risk of you having sleep apnea increases. People with larger necks are also more prone to have sleep apnea.
- Children with enlarged tonsils can develop sleep apnea.
Snoring. One of the most common signs of sleep apnea is loud and ongoing snoring. The snoring may pause and choking or gasping sounds may follow. The snoring may not happen every night, but over time it may occur more frequently. Snoring is worse when you sleep on your back and is less noisy when you turn on your side. You are asleep when the sleep apnea symptoms occur and a family member or bed partner will often notice your condition before you do.
Daytime sleepiness. If you are tired and have to fight going to sleep during the day, this may be a sign you have sleep apnea. You may fall rapidly asleep during quiet moments of the day or become extremely drowsy at work or while driving. Other symptoms include:
- Morning headaches
- Trouble concentrating
- Mood or behavior changes
- Nighttime urination
If you have one or more of these symptoms, we recommend that you visit your primary care provider for additional an evaluation.
- More information: guide to sleep apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea. The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea which occurs when an airway has collapsed or is blocked during sleep. The blockage may cause shallow breathing or breathing pauses. When you try to breathe, any air that squeezes past the blockage can cause loud snoring.
- More information: guide to obstructive sleep apnea
Central sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea is caused by irregularities in the brain's normal signals to breathe.Most people with sleep apnea will have a combination of both types.
- More information: guide to central sleep apnea
- Medical history and physical exam. Your sleep specialist will take your medical history and conduct a complete physical exam. This will help determine whether your snoring and gasping during sleep is caused by another underlying condition.
- Sleep log. You may be asked to keep a sleep log. Daily, you will record how easy it is to fall and stay asleep, how much sleep you get at night, and how alert you feel during the day.
- Sleep study. Your physician may refer you to a sleep specialist at Riverside Centers for Sleep Medicine where a sleep study may be conducted. A sleep study will confirm whether you have sleep apnea and help doctors assess the severity of your condition.