Sleep Apnea

Lindsay Brock

Sleep apnea is a common sleeping disorder where a person has experiences of not breathing during sleep. Over 20 million Americans, mostly overweight men, suffer from sleep apnea. Despite these numbers, sleep apnea is often not treated directly because its symptoms are thought to be those of depression, stress, or just loud snoring. There may be a genetic component to this disorder as it often occurs within families.

People with sleep apnea stop breathing for at least 10 seconds at a time; these short stops in breathing can happen up to 400 times every night. The Greek word "apnea" literally means "without breath". There are three types of apnea: obstructive, central, and mixed.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type. Nine out of 10 patients with sleep apnea have this kind of apnea. If you have this type, something is blocking the passage or windpipe, called the trachea, that brings air into your body. Your windpipe might be blocked by your tongue, tonsils, or uvula. It might also be blocked by a large amount of fatty tissue in the throat or even by relaxed throat muscles.

Central sleep apnea is rare. This type is called central because it is related to the function of the central nervous system. If you have this type of apnea, the muscles you use in breathing don't get the "go ahead" signal from your brain. Either the brain doesn't send the signal, or the signal gets interrrupted. Mixed sleep apnea, as the name implies, is a combination of the two.

So, what are the signs? One example is when a person sleeps, they have a very pronounced snore-- more like a loud and sudden snort. This "gasp for air" is literally a life saver when the mouth and throat muscles tense up to allow air back into the body. Most sleepers are unaware of this occurrence, although it often shakes their bed partners, roommates, and even neighbors to the core. Another sign is when a person falls asleep at inappropriate times like work, driving, sitting in a chair, or in front of a television.

It can also be a sign of sleep apnea if a person frequently has morning headaches, memory difficulties, low energy levels, agitation, shortness of breath, or leg swelling. These are the main symptoms seen when someone could possibly have sleep apnea. In serious cases, the continuous oxygen deprivation caused by sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, or even sudden death.

Here are some steps that help many people with sleep apnea to sleep better:
- Stop use of all alcohol or sleep medicines.
- If you are overweight, lose weight.
- Sleep on your side instead of your back. Sometimes, sewing a tennis ball into the back of a night-shirt can prevent this from occurring.

If you still have problems, you can wear a special mask over your nose and mouth while you are sleeping. The mask will keep your airway open by adding pressure to the air you breathe. The mask helps most people with sleep apnea. In very few cases, surgery is necessary to remove tonsils or extra tissue in the throat. Whatever the treatment, remember that you are not alone, and help is available.