It’s more than snoring. Sleep apnea is the breakdown of your body’s vital processes. It literally takes your breath away.
Sleep apnea is a disorder affecting the breathing of the sleeper, leading to irregular breathing and long pauses with no breathing at all.
These breaks in breathing are called apneas.
Apneas can span from between ten seconds to multiple minutes, and, depending on the severity of the affliction, can occur every ten minutes, every five minutes, or even every two minutes. Sleep apnea is included in the more general term of sleep-disordered breathing. This term also includes low breathing, characterized by very shallow breaths, known as hypopnea.
Sleep apnea sufferers typically are unaware of their condition. Although related problems such as snoring may wake the individual, typically they will sleep through apnea and hypopnea episodes. Often, it is partners and spouses who notice a problem, rather than the person with the disorder. This means that people can live with sleep apnea for years, not knowing the health risks that they may be suffering.
That being said, the symptoms of sleep apnea are noticeable, even if the cause isn’t. People with sleep apnea can complain of daytime fatigue and lack of concentration. Medical professionals will often prescribe a sleep study to establish is sleep apnea is the underlying cause.
Obstructive sleep apnea
The most common form of sleep apnea (making up 84% of all sleep apnea cases) obstructive sleep apnea is a physical obstruction of the airway. This obstruction is from of the walls of the airway themselves, which can collapse and block the flow of air.
During sleep, it is normal for the body to relax, and for muscles to loosen. In affected individuals, this leads to the airway partially collapsing and blocking the flow of air, leading to apneas.
Why does this affect some people, and not others?
For some, it’s purely genetic bad luck. The structure of their head and neck is such that relaxed muscles block the airway.
For others, it is lack of muscle tone. Otherwise normal tissue has lost its ability to maintain a certain tension.
For many more, the cause is obesity. Excess tissue in the airway creates more material to block the airway and cause an apnea.
Risk factors for Obstructive sleep apnea include:
Obstructive sleep apnea is also the form of apnea associated with snoring. This is because the same flesh that blocks the airways also affects the sound produced, from a gentle wheeze to a rusty chainsaw. However, more severe apnea does not mean louder snoring. Instead it’s the other way around. The more blockage of the airway, the less air can pass, so less snoring volume is possible. In fact, snoring stops during true sleep apnea, as no air can pass at all.
Central sleep apnea
Central sleep apnea comprises less than half of one percent of cases of sleep apnea. Rather than a physical blockage of airways, it entails a problem with the brain’s breathing control center. The body does not react properly to levels of carbon dioxide, the automatic feedback trigger for breath.
Mixed sleep apnea
Mixed sleep apnea makes up about 15 percent of all cases. As the same indicates, it’s a mix of both Central sleep apnea and obstructive.
The interruption of normal breathing has a large number of potential effects on the sufferer, and the severity can vary depending on how often apneas occur. Because apnea can reduce oxygen levels in the brain, the symptoms are often mental.
- Physical and mental fatigue
- Inability to maintain attention
- Interruption in the way the brain plans and executes tasks
- Problems with memory and learning
- Liver disorders
- Cardiovascular disease
- High blood pressure
- Greater rate of cancer mortality
What to do:
Aside from surgery, there are two primary physical solutions to treat sleep apnea.
1. Oral appliance.
This can be created by a dentist or oral appliance specialist, and functions as a mouthpiece that fits both the upper and lower jaw. The appliance is designed to move the lower jaw forward, and keep the jaw a little bit open. This opens up the throat and creates more room for the passage of air.
More advanced is a treatment known as Continuous Positive Airway Pressure – or CPAP. It’s also referred to as Automatic Positive Airway Pressure (APAP). In this, the person with sleep apnea wears a mask attached to a machine that generates positive air pressure. This positive air pressure keeps the air passage from collapsing, allowing for uninterrupted breathing.
Keep in mind that air is not being blown down the wearer’s throat – when the mask is on the flow of air stops. This leaves positive air pressure in the throat as long as the mask remains on.
There are a variety of different models of CPAP machines and masks, including nose pillows, nose masks, and full face masks. Patients are encouraged to try a variety of types to ensure that they find one that is most comfortable for them.
CPAP is an effective treatment, but it does not cure sleep apnea. The devices much be worn every night in order to continue helping the patient.
What not to do:
Avoid sedatives and alcohol. Although it may be tempting to try to get to a deeper sleep with drink or pills, these can cause even more problems. They certainly may relax you, but they relax muscles in your throat too – leading to a slackening of the muscles around the airway. They sag into the flow of air, and breathing is interrupted even worse than before.
Image credit: 100: I Need More Sleep by joshunter, on Flickr