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What Is Sleep Apnea?

Helpful Information About this Serious Sleep Disorder: Types, Symptoms and Risks

Sleep apnea happens when a person’s breathing stops or is interrupted during sleep. Apneic episodes can cause poor sleep, reduce the flow of oxygen to vital organs, and lead to serious health consequences.

Sleep apnea is very common. More than 22 million Americans, and more than 100 million people worldwide suffer from it – about 3-7% of all men and 2-5% of all women.

If you have sleep apnea, you are not alone!

Different Types of Sleep Apnea

There are three different types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): When people talk about “sleep apnea,” they’re generally referring to OSA. Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the most commonly found form of sleep apnea. OSA happens when the airway at the back of the throat becomes blocked, causing a temporary lapse in breathing. Your brain senses this and briefly wakes you to reopen your airway. You might snort, choke or gasp, and it typically happens so quickly you don’t even remember it. This pattern may repeat itself five to 30 times or more every hour throughout the night.
  • Central Sleep Apnea (CSA): CSA affects about 0.9% of adults over the age of 40. Unlike OSA, the airway is not blocked; instead, your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing because of problems with your body’s central nervous system. This leads to the sufferer exhibiting less effort to regain breathing, resulting in slower, shallower breathing.
  • Mixed Sleep Apnea: Also called complex sleep apnea and treatment-emergent central sleep apnea. This type occurs when someone has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.


Common Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

There are many different symptoms that are present with people suffering from sleep apnea. OSA, CSA, and mixed sleep apnea can have similar symptoms. Some of these symptoms are:

  • Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
  • Gasping for air while sleeping
  • Night sweats
  • Morning headaches
  • Heartburn
  • Dizziness when you awake (due to low oxygen levels)

Additional symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Chronic snoring, which is the most common symptom. It usually involves choking, snorting, or gasping and often causes the person to briefly wake up. But just because you snore doesn’t mean you have sleep apnea. Many times, people with sleep apnea don’t know they have it because they sleep through their breathing problems. That’s why a partner, family member, or roommate is often the first to point out the problem.
  • Morning sore throat or dry mouth
  • Frequent need to wake up to urinate


Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can affect anyone, male or female, young or old. But certain factors increase your risk.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Risks

Many factors may increase the risk of airway blockage and OSA:

  • Anatomy: The position and size and of your neck, jaw, tongue, tonsils, or adenoids can interfere with airflow.
  • Obesity: Being overweight is a leading cause of OSA, and an underlying risk factor in up to 60% of cases. Obesity narrows the airway and research shows that even a 10% increase in weight increases the risk of OSA 6x.
  • Alcohol/Drug Use: Using alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers. These can relax throat tissue, making it easier for the airway to become obstructed.
  • Family History: People with a family history of having OSA are more likely to develop it.
  • Smoking: Smokers are 3x more likely to have OSA than people who’ve never smoked.
  • Sleeping Position: Sleeping on your back makes it easier for tissue to collapse around the airway and block airflow.
  • Nasal Congestion: People who have difficulty breathing through their nose, because of congestion or allergies, are more likely to have OSA.
  • Hormone Abnormalities: Hormone conditions like hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), and acromegaly (excess growth hormone), may increase the risk of OSA by causing swelling of tissue near the airway, or contributing to a person’s risk of obesity.
  • Menopause: Women’s risk increases after menopause.
  • Gender: Mend tend to have a higher prevalence of OSA.
  • Age: People become more susceptible to OSA as they get older.
  • Other Medical Conditions: Having any of the following chronic medical condition may increase your risk of developing OSA type 2 diabetes, congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, Parkinson’s disease, polycystic ovary syndrome, stroke, chronic lung diseases, and asthma.

Central Sleep Apnea Risks

Many factors may increase the risk of airway blockage and CSA:

  • Diseases that affect the central nervous system, such as, encephalitis or neurological and kidney disorders
  • Underlying medical conditions such as a stroke, infection of the brain or, in rare cases, a brain tumor that damages the brain stem
  • Heart failure and other forms of heart, kidney, or lung disease.
  • Neuromuscular diseases, like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease)
  • Pain medicines, like opioids that interfere with the normal process of breathing
  • Being older.
  • Being male.
  • High altitudes, which disrupt a person’s oxygen levels

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