Sleep apnea is one of the more interesting of the sleep disorders, as it is fairly common but not frequently diagnosed. Although experiencing apnea during sleep can result in many different side effects, 60% of the people who have it will never be aware of their condition.
There is a group of muscles in the upper part of the throat that control the passage of oxygen between the nasal cavity and the lungs. When a person is awake, those muscles remain open, permitting the flow of oxygen to continue unabated. When a person is sleeping, the muscles relax considerably, but not enough to completely block the flow of oxygen.
A patient with sleep apnea usually as a very narrow passage, so when he or she falls asleep, oxygen is not prevented to flow correctly. As the patient struggles to breath, excessive snoring and labored breathing occur, and when the muscles close completely, no air can reach the lungs.
Apnea occurs during those periods of time in which breathing is not permitted to take place. An apnea is a long moment – sometimes lasting longer than ten seconds – where breathing stops completely. This usually takes place in very deep sleep. Afterwards, when the passageway is opened again, the patient struggles to regain the breath that they have lost, resulting in labored, intense breathing and a lighter stage of sleep.
Patients may apnea between ten and fifty times per night, which inevitably results in fragmented sleep that leaves the patient drowsy during the day. They might wake up with a slight headache or feel as though they have a cold. Only on rare occassions will the patient become fully awake during an apnea.
Older, overweight men are the most likely candidates for sleep apnea, though it can occur in nearly anyone. Nasal obstructions or deformities, a thick tongue, narrow airways and certain shapes of the jaw and palate can also be contributing factors. Statistics show that people with a larger-than-normal neck or collar size are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea.
During apnea, the oxygen level in the blood decreases significantly, which may potentially cause daytime symptoms as well as pulmonary disorders.
It is rare for a patient with sleep apnea to remember the episodes when he or she wakes up in the morning. Patients usually do not discover that they have the disorder until they sleep in the same bed or in the same room with a friend or family member, who might observe these symptoms:
– extremely loud snoring
– brief periods without breathing (apnea)
– personality changes
– sudden weight gain
– headaches that begin in the morning
– poor judgment
Children who suffer from sleep apnea might exhibit hyperactive behavior with periods of automatic behavior that seems almost robotic. In some cases – though not many – leg swelling might also be a symptom.
Treatment of sleep apnea can vary depending upon the severity of the condition, and whether or not a physical cause is present. Avoiding both alcohol and sedatives before bed is one way to lower the chances of experiencing apneas. A doctor can also prescribe an assisted breathing device that fits like a mask while the patient sleeps and is designed to help open the airways of the throat.
If the cause is physical, a doctor can perform surgery to remove excess tissue in the throat (called a uvulopalatopharyngoplasty), to remove large tonsils (called a tonsillectomy) or to actually insert an opening in the trachea to provide another path for oxygen during sleep (called a tracheostomy).
It is best to evaluate one’s own condition and to determine how serious the situation is. If you feel that your sleep is being grossly affected, contact your doctor immediately.