Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that, while common, can be very serious. People with sleep apnea experience pauses in breathing during sleep. These pauses in breathing typically last 10 – 20 seconds and can occur 20 - 30 times (or more) per hour.
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea, when enough air cannot move into your lungs while you are sleeping. As a result, the amount of oxygen in your blood may drop. Obstructive sleep apnea is often marked by loud snoring.
Central apnea is a rare type sleep disorder that happens when the area of your brain that controls breathing doesn't send the appropriate signals to the breathing muscles, resulting in a lack of autonomic (automatic) efforts to breath for brief periods. Snoring is not typical with central apnea.
Who Is At Risk?
It is estimated that more than 12 million Americans have obstructive sleep apnea. People with diabetes are at an elevated risk due to the higher-incidence of obesity and hypertension.
Adults who are most likely to have sleep apnea:
• Are middle-aged men.
• Are overweight.
• Snore loudly.
• Have high blood pressure.
• Have a decreased size of the airways in their nose, throat, or mouth (caused by shape of structures or medical conditions that may cause congestion in these areas, i.e. hay fever).
• Have a family history of sleep apnea.
What Are the Signs?
The most common signs of sleep apnea are:
• Loud snoring.
• Choking or gasping during sleep.
• Exhaustion during the day.
• Morning headaches.
• Memory or learning problems as a result of exhaustion.
• Dry throat upon waking.
• Frequent urination at night.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Sleep apnea is diagnosed by your medical doctor, who will perform a physical exam and taking a full medical history regarding your sleep patterns. A recording of what happens while your sleep may be requested, usually performed at a sleep center or hospital. The most common sleep recording test is called a polysomnogram, which records brain activity, eye movement, breathing rate, and the percentage of oxygen in your blood.
Also, there are new home sleep study tests that diagnosis obstructive sleep apnea by assessing air flow, breathing efforts, blood oxygen, heart activity, and snoring.
What is the Treatment?
Treatment for sleep apnea may include lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol, smoking, and medicines that cause drowsiness. It may also include weight loss and the recommendation that you sleep on your side instead of your back.
A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask is the most common treatment, which involves a mask that blows air into your throat at a pressure level that is right for you. The increased airway pressure keeps the throat open while you sleep.
For some people with sleep apnea, surgery may also be a treatment option.
Excerpted and adapted from: National Institutes of Health
Reviewed by Francine Kaufman, MD. 4/08
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