What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition. It's far more common
than thought. It happens in all age groups and both genders, but it's more common
in men. Over 20 million Americans have sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder characterized by brief interruptions of breathing
during sleep. There are 3 types of sleep apnea:
Obstructive sleep apnea happens when air can’t flow into or out of the nose or mouth although efforts to breathe
Central sleep apnea happens when the brain fails to send the right signals to the muscles to start breathing.
Central sleep apnea is less common than obstructive sleep apnea.
Complex sleep apnea. This is a mix of symptoms found in both central and obstructive sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea causes involuntary breathing pauses or "apneic events" during a single
night's sleep. There may be as many as 20 to 30 or more events per hour. Between events
you may snore. But, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. Sleep apnea may also
make you feel like you are choking. The frequent interruptions of deep, restorative
sleep often lead to early morning headaches and excessive daytime sleepiness.
During the apneic event, you can’t breathe in oxygen or exhale carbon dioxide. This
results in low levels of oxygen and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood.
This alerts the brain to resume breathing and cause an arousal. With each arousal,
a signal is sent from the brain to the upper airway muscles to open the airway. Breathing
is resumed, often with a loud snort or gasp. Frequent arousals, although necessary
for breathing to restart, prevent restorative, deep sleep.
Early recognition and treatment of sleep apnea is important, as it may be associated
What causes sleep apnea?
Certain mechanical and structural problems in the airway cause the interruptions in
breathing during sleep. Apnea happens:
When the throat muscles and tongue relax during sleep and partially block the opening
of the airway
When the muscles of the soft palate at the base of the tongue and the uvula relax
and sag, the airway becomes blocked, making breathing labored and noisy and even stopping
In overweight people when an excess amount of tissue in the airway causes it to be
With a narrowed airway, the person continues his or her efforts to breathe, but air
can’t easily flow into or out of the nose or mouth
Who is at risk for sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea seems to run in some families, suggesting a possible genetic basis. People
most likely to have or develop sleep apnea include those who:
Use of alcohol and sleeping pills increases the frequency and duration of breathing
pauses in people with sleep apnea.
What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?
In either form of sleep apnea, your breathing pauses a number of times during sleep.
These are called apneic events. There may be as many as 20 to 30 or more events per
hour. Between events, you may snore. But, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea may also cause a choking sensation. When breathing restarts, you may snort
or gasp. These frequent breaks in deep, restorative sleep often lead to headaches
and excessive daytime sleepiness.
Other symptoms include dry mouth or sore throat and problems paying attention.
How is sleep apnea diagnosed?
A primary healthcare provider, pulmonologist, neurologist, or other healthcare provider
with specialty training in sleep disorders may make a diagnosis and start treatment.
Several tests are used to evaluate sleep apnea, including:
Polysomnography. This test is done in a sleep lab. It records a variety of body functions during sleep.
This includes the electrical activity of the brain, eye movement, muscle activity,
heart rate, respiratory effort, air flow, and blood oxygen levels.
Home sleep apnea test. This is a portable device that can diagnose sleep apnea. Your doctor will arrange
for you to take it home to wear during sleep and then it returned to the office where
results are processed.
How is sleep apnea treated?
Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend
on how severe the condition is.
Medicines generally don't work to treat sleep apnea. Treatment may include:
Oxygen. Giving oxygen may safely help some people, but doesn't end sleep apnea or
prevent daytime sleepiness. Its role in the treatment of sleep apnea is controversial.
Behavioral changes are an important part of treatment. In mild cases of sleep apnea,
behavioral therapy may be all that is needed. You may be advised to:
Not use alcohol or tobacco.
Not use sleeping pills.
Lose weight if overweight. Even a 10% weight loss can reduce the number of sleep apnea
events for most people.
Use pillows and other devices to help sleep in a side position.
Physical or mechanical therapy. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a device
used nightly. For this treatment, you wear a mask over the nose or mouth and nose
during sleep. Pressure from an air blower forces air through the nose and throat.
Dental appliances. These can reposition the lower jaw and the tongue have been helpful
to some people with mild sleep apnea, or who snore but don't have apnea.
Orofacial therapy. This can help by improving the tongue positioning and strengthen
mouth and facial muscles.
Surgery. Some people with sleep apnea may need surgery. Examples of these procedures
Surgery to remove adenoids and tonsils, nasal polyps, or other growths or tissue in
the airway, or to correct structural deformities
Surgery to remove excess tissue at the back of the throat (tonsils, uvula, and part
of the soft palate)
Surgery to reconstruct deformities of the upper jaw (maxilla) and lower jaw (mandible).
Surgery to treat obesity
Nerve stimulator. A newer treatment option for certain people is called a hypoglossal
nerve stimulator. It's an implanted device that triggers the neck muscle to tighten
when the device detects that the airway is closing during sleep.
Key points about sleep apnea
Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder that causes brief times when you stop breathing
There are 3 types of sleep apnea: central sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea, and
complex sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea seems to run in some families, suggesting a possible genetic basis.
Diagnosis of sleep apnea is not simple because there can be many different causes.
Medicines generally don't work to treat sleep apnea.
Treatment may involve behavioral changes, weight loss, CPAP therapy, and sometimes
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells
At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments,
or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also
know what the side effects are.
Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that
Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.