Understanding Sleep Apnea

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medical chart with sleep apnea checked

Many Americans struggle to get a good night’s sleep, but for some, the issue preventing restful sleep is a medical condition known as sleep apnea. This sleep disorder affects as many as 22 million people in the United States, but many people—up to 80% of sufferers—are undiagnosed. There are different types of sleep apnea, but each has the potential to cause serious complications, including asthma, certain cancers, and heart disease.

Fortunately, your doctor can diagnose sleep apnea based on your symptoms and the results of certain tests, like sleep studies. Confirming your diagnosis allows your doctor to develop a treatment plan tailored to your personal needs. With your doctor’s help, it’s possible to experience restful sleep and avoid complications from this condition.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that has the potential to develop into major complications. There are three main types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): OSA occurs when your throat muscles relax during sleep, blocking your airway and preventing you from breathing properly. When this happens, your brain wakes you up quickly to restore breathing to normal. This is the most common type of sleep apnea.

  • Central sleep apnea (CSA): The muscles controlling your breathing don’t receive proper signals from your brain, making it difficult for you to breathe normally. This type of sleep apnea is much less common than OSA.

  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome: this form of sleep apnea is a combination of both OSA and CSA.

Each type of sleep apnea causes similar symptoms to develop. For many, loud snoring is often the first sign of a problem. You may also experience symptoms like:

In severe cases, people with sleep apnea actually stop breathing while sleeping. This may be followed by an abrupt awakening where you experience shortness of breath as your body tries to reset itself.

5 Things You Didn't Know About Sleep Apnea

What are the sleep apnea risk factors?

Anyone can develop sleep apnea. Risk factors that increase your chance of developing sleep apnea include:

  • Older age

  • Obesity

  • Drinking alcohol excessively

  • Smoking

  • Family history of sleep apnea

  • Being male

  • Being of African-American, Hispanic, or Native American descent

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

The first step to diagnosing sleep apnea is having a conversation with your doctor. Your doctor will ask you about your personal medical history and will likely perform a physical examination. Initially, your doctor may try to rule out other medical conditions that may cause your symptoms.

If no other cause for your symptoms is found, your doctor may recommend a sleep study. During this procedure, sleep specialists monitor your sleep to detect apnea events. They also monitor your blood oxygen levels and the activity in the muscles that help you breathe. The results of a sleep study are used to confirm your diagnosis.

How is sleep apnea treated?

Because each person is unique, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to treating sleep apnea. Many people find treatment with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines helps alleviate symptoms. Your doctor may also recommend certain nasal or oral devices designed to keep your throat from relaxing fully during sleep.

In certain circumstances, surgery is necessary to correct sleep apnea. Your doctor may recommend surgery if you have large amounts of fatty tissue in your throat or neck, or if the position of your jaw interferes with your ability to breathe normally while sleeping. For some people, surgery to remove enlarged tonsils or adenoids helps relieve symptoms.

Additionally, certain lifestyle changes may help you manage sleep apnea. Losing weight through a healthy diet and regular exercise, quitting smoking, and developing healthy sleep habits can all help control your symptoms and improve sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is more than just snoring loudly; it’s a serious sleep disorder with the potential to cause further complications. Fortunately, your doctor can help diagnose sleep apnea and develop a plan for managing your condition effectively. While you may have certain risk factors that make it more likely you’ll develop sleep apnea, you can lower your risk by achieving a healthy weight, exercising, and quitting drinking and smoking.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Mar 13

  1. Sleep Apnea. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/sleep-apnea

  2. Sleep Apnea. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleep-apnea/symptoms-causes/syc-20377631

  3. Sleep Apnea Information for Clinicians. American Sleep Apnea Association. https://www.sleepapnea.org/learn/sleep-apnea-information-clinicians/

  4. Sleep Apnea. National Sleep Foundation. https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-disorders-problems/sleep-apnea

  5. Sleep Apnea Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Sleep-Apnea-Information-Page

  6. Sleep Apnea. American Sleep Association. https://www.sleepassociation.org/sleep-disorders-n/sleep-apnea/

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