Are you sleepy during the daytime? Is snoring a problem? Both are symptoms of a serious health problem. Apnea means without breath. Sleep apnea occurs when air movement in and out of the lungs is reduced during sleep, making blood oxygen plummet. Brain sensors identify the low oxygen level and high carbon dioxide shift. This, in turn, triggers partial awakening to correct the problem. Deeper breathing is stimulated, often accompanied by loud snoring as increased effort overcomes the obstruction.
Once the airway is opened again, oxygen rises and carbon dioxide drops. The extra breathing stimulus isn’t needed…and sleep resumes. This cycle repeats many times each night. During most episodes, full awakening doesn’t occur. Other times, the person suddenly awakens gasping and choking. Individuals with sleep apnea may not experience overt symptoms, may be unaware of snoring episodes, and don’t realize their memory lapses and frequent naps are related to a problem that also increases their risk for serious heart problems.
Obesity contributes to this problem, but many thin people are affected, too. Alcohol, narcotics and sedatives relax throat muscles resulting in breathing problems. A narrow airway or large tonsils, even in children, can cause sleep apnea.
There are two primary types of sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the airway is blocked by oral tissue when throat muscles relax during sleep. Central sleep apnea is related to reduction of the respiration mechanism in the brain. Both types negatively affect health.
To diagnose the problem, a sleep study to continuously monitor oxygen, heart rate rhythm, and wakening is needed. The primary treatment for sleep apnea is “continuous positive airway pressure,” known as CPAP. This means wearing a carefully fitted mask attached to a small machine. The pressure and fit are individualized for each person to produce enough air pressure to keep their airway open during the normal relaxation of muscle tone during sleep. The adjustment to wearing such an apparatus may be inconvenient and a bit awkward at first, but can be life-saving.
After a good night’s sleep most people with sleep apnea experience a significant improvement in health and wellbeing. Small travel units are available.
What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?
• Restless sleep and fatigue
• Frequent awakening
• Daytime sleepiness, irritability
• Reduced memory
• Morning headaches and confusion
• Chest discomfort
• Children and teens may be poor students
• Behavioral problems in children
Health and heart risks associated with sleep apnea:
• Car accidents due to daytime sleepiness
• Atrial fibrillation, irregular heart beat
• Heart attacks and strokes
• High blood pressure
• Sudden death
Consult a physician and inquire about a sleep study if you are concerned about this health problem.