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Sleep Apnea

Sleep Apnea: What You Need to Know

People suffering from sleep apnea suffer from breathing problems while sleeping, and this condition can negatively affect their health and quality of life. It is a common but serious sleep disorder. It is important to understand what sleep apnea is, what it causes, what the symptoms are, how it can be diagnosed, and how it can be treated.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a condition that occurs when your breathing is interrupted during sleep. There are two main types of sleep apnea:

  • The muscles at the back of your throat relax and block your airway during sleep, which prevents you from getting enough oxygen. As your brain attempts to wake you up to resume breathing, you may snore, gasp, or choke. This may disrupt your sleep cycle and affect your health several times per hour.

  • CSA occurs when your brain fails to send the correct signals to the muscles that control your breathing, causing you to stop breathing for a short period of time. Central sleep apnea (CSA) is less common than other types of sleep apnea. You may not snore, but you may still feel tired and groggy. Certain medical conditions are often associated with this type of sleep apnea, such as heart failure, stroke, and opioid use.

Some people may have a combination of both types of sleep apnea, called mixed or complex sleep apnea.

What causes sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea can have different causes depending on the type and the individual. Some of the common risk factors for sleep apnea are:

  • Being overweight or obese: Excess weight can put pressure on your airway and make it more likely to collapse during sleep.

  • Having a large neck, tongue, tonsils, or jaw: These anatomical features can narrow your airway and make it harder to breathe.

  • Being male: Men are more likely to develop sleep apnea than women, especially before age 50. However, after menopause, women’s risk increases as well.

  • Being older: As you age, your muscles tend to lose tone and strength, which can affect your breathing.

  • Having a family history of sleep apnea: Sleep apnea may have a genetic component, so if you have relatives with sleep apnea, you may be more prone to it as well.

  • Smoking, drinking alcohol, or using sedatives: These substances can relax your throat muscles and interfere with your breathing.

  • Having certain medical conditions: Some conditions that can affect your nervous system, heart, or metabolism can increase your risk of sleep apnea, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid problems, Parkinson’s disease, or kidney failure.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea can cause various symptoms, some of which may not be obvious to you or your bed partner. Some of the common signs and symptoms of sleep apnea are:

  • Loud and frequent snoring

  • Pauses in breathing during sleep, followed by gasping or choking sounds

  • Waking up with a dry mouth, sore throat, or headache

  • Feeling sleepy, tired, or irritable during the day

  • Having trouble concentrating, remembering, or making decisions

  • Experiencing mood swings, depression, or anxiety

  • Having a low sex drive or impotence

  • Having frequent urination or nocturia (waking up to urinate at night)

  • Having night sweats or heart palpitations

If you notice any of these symptoms, you should talk to your health care provider and get tested for sleep apnea. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to serious complications, such as:

  • Increased risk of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other cardiovascular and metabolic diseases

  • Increased risk of accidents, injuries, or errors at work or while driving

  • Reduced quality of life, social functioning, and mental health

  • Increased risk of death

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

A healthcare provider will examine your medical history, your symptoms, your lifestyle, and your family history to diagnose sleep apnea. They will also examine your mouth, nose, throat, and neck for any abnormalities that may affect your breathing. They may also measure your blood pressure, oxygen level, and heart rate.

Performing a sleep study, also called a polysomnography, is the most definitive way to diagnose sleep apnea. During sleep, your brain activity, eye movements, muscles, breathing, heart rate, and oxygen levels are recorded. During the sleep study, you may have to spend the night at a sleep center or use a portable device to do the test. It will tell you how often you stop breathing, for how long each episode lasts, and how low your oxygen level drops. You will be advised on the best treatment option for your sleep apnea based on the type and severity of your sleep apnea.

How is sleep apnea treated?

It is important to know the type, the cause, and the severity of your sleep apnea before you start treatment. Some of the common treatments for sleep apnea include restoring normal breathing during sleep, improving sleep quality, and preventing or reducing the risk of complications.

  • Sleep apnea is most commonly treated with positive airway pressure (PAP). This method involves wearing a mask over your mouth or nose that delivers pressurized air into your airways, preventing them from collapsing. Depending on your preferences and needs, you can choose from continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP), or adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV) PAP devices. For the best results, you will need to try different masks, settings, and humidifiers, as well as follow the instructions for cleaning and maintaining the device.

  • When you sleep, you wear an oral appliance. These devices open up your airways and improve your breathing by repositioning your lower jaw, tongue, or soft palate. They are usually custom-made by a dentist or an orthodontist who specializes in sleep apnea. Although they are less invasive and more convenient than PAP therapy, they may not always be as effective. To ensure that your oral appliance fits and functions properly, you will need regular check-ups and adjustments.

  • Those with severe or persistent sleep apnea, or those who have anatomical problems that cause or worsen their sleep apnea, may benefit from surgery. Several types of surgery can be performed in order to remove or modify tissues or structures that block your airway, such as your tonsils, adenoids, uvula, soft palate, tongue, or jaw. In addition to your individual case, your surgeon will recommend the type and extent of surgery for you. You may still need to use PAP therapy or oral appliances after surgery to maintain your results. Surgery may involve some risks and complications, such as bleeding, infection, pain, and scarring.

  • You can improve your sleep apnea and your overall health by making these simple but important lifestyle changes:

    • Losing weight if you are overweight or obese

    • Quitting smoking if you smoke

    • Avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and sedatives before bedtime

    • Sleeping on your side or using a wedge pillow to elevate your head

    • Practicing good sleep hygiene and having a regular sleep schedule

    • Doing exercises to strengthen your throat muscles

    • Treating any underlying medical conditions that may contribute to your sleep apnea

How can sleep apnea be prevented?

You may not be able to prevent all cases of sleep apnea, especially those caused by genetics or anatomical factors. However, you can reduce your risk by following these tips:

  • Maintain a healthy weight and body mass index (BMI)

  • Eat a balanced and nutritious diet

  • Exercise regularly and stay physically active

  • Manage your stress levels and practice relaxation techniques

  • Avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke

  • Limit your intake of alcohol, caffeine, and other stimulants

  • Seek medical attention for any symptoms or signs of sleep apnea

  • Get screened for sleep apnea if you have any risk factors or family history


Your breathing, your sleep quality, and your health can be affected by sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder. In addition to causing snoring, daytime sleepiness, mood swings, and heart disease, it can also increase your risk of diabetes, stroke, and other complications. A health care provider should be consulted if you suspect you have sleep apnea and you should get tested as soon as possible. Depending on your condition and preferences, there are a number of different treatments available for sleep apnea, including PAP therapy, oral appliances, surgery, and lifestyle changes. You can improve your sleep apnea by following the recommended treatment and making some healthy changes.


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