Sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing is repeatedly interrupted during sleep. The time period for which the breathing stops or decreases is usually 10-30 seconds. When these episodes occur repeatedly, sleep apnea can seriously disrupt the quality of sleep.
There are three types of respiratory events:
- Obstructive apnea—caused by a temporary, partial, or complete blockage of the airway
- Central apnea—caused by a temporary failure to make an effort to breathe
- Mixed apnea—combination of the first two types
These factors increase your chance of developing sleep apnea. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:
- Sex: male
- Age: middle to older age
- Family history of apnea
Structural abnormalities of the nose, throat, or other part of the respiratory tract. Examples include:
- Severely enlarged tonsils
- Deviated nasal septum]]>
- Medications: sedatives and sleeping aids
- ]]>Alcohol consumption]]>
- Fatigue and sleepiness during waking hours
- Loud snoring
- Breathing that stops during the night (noticed by the partner)
- Repeated wakening at night
- Unrefreshing sleep
- Morning headaches
- Poor concentration or problems with memory
- Irritability or short temper
An overnight sleep study is used to help diagnose sleep apnea.
Overnight Sleep Study (Polysomnography)
This test]]> helps detect the presence and severity of sleep apnea. During sleep, it measures your:
- Eye and muscle movements
- Brain activity ( ]]>electroencephalogram]]> )
- Heart rate
- Breathing (pattern and depth)
- Percent saturation of your red blood cells with oxygen
There are a number of treatment options for sleep apnea, including:
- Lose weight if you are overweight.
- Avoid using sedatives, sleeping pills, alcohol, and nicotine, which tend to make the condition worse.
- Try sleeping on your side instead of your back.
- Place pillows strategically so you are as comfortable as possible.
- For daytime sleepiness, practice safety measures, such as avoiding driving or operating potentially hazardous equipment.
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP)]]> entails wearing a mask over your nose and/or mouth during sleep. An air blower forces enough constant and continuous air through your air passages to prevent the tissues from collapsing and blocking the airway. In some cases, dental appliances that help keep the tongue or jaw in a more forward position may help.
In some cases, surgery may be recommended. Surgery can be used to:
- Remove excess soft tissue from the nose and/or throat
- Reposition the jawbone and tongue
- Create an opening in the windpipe for unobstructed breathing (in life-threatening cases)
Only used in central apnea, ]]>acetazolamide]]> may help improve the ability to regulate breathing. Overall, there is not a lot of evidence to support the use of medications to treat sleep apnea.
Supplemental oxygen may be given if blood levels of oxygen fall too low during sleep, even after opening the airway.
American Academy of Sleep Medicine
American Sleep Apnea Association
National Sleep Foundation
Canadian Lung Association
Canadian Sleep Society
American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The International Classification of Sleep Disorders. 2nd ed. Westchester, IL: American Academy of Sleep Medicine; 2005.
American Sleep Apnea Association website. Available at: http://www.sleepapnea.org .
Kushida CA, Littner MR, Hirshkowitz M, et al. Practice parameters for the use of continuous and bilevel positive airway pressure devices to treat adults with sleep-related breathing disorders. Sleep. 2006;29:375-380.
Littner MR, Kushida C, Wise M, et al. Practice parameters for clinical use of the multiple sleep latency test and the maintenance of wakefulness test. Sleep. 2005;28:113-121.
Morgenthaler TI, Kapen S, Lee-Chiong T, et al. Practice parameters for the medical therapy of obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep. 2006;29:1031-1035.
Obstructive sleep apnea. DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php . Accessed October 22, 2007.
Pack AI, Maislin G. Who should get treated for sleep apnea? Ann Intern Med . 2001;134:1065-1067.
Smith I, Lasserson TJ, Wright J. Drug therapy for obstructive sleep apnea. Cochrane Database Syst Rev . 2006;19:CD003002.
Last reviewed February 2009 by ]]>Jill D. Landis, MD]]>
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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