Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a potentially serious medical condition that affects as many as 18 million Americans. Unfortunately, a recent survey of approximately 1,200 women found that more than half (52 percent) weren't aware that OSA exists.
OSA is characterized by repeated pauses in breathing during sleep. The word "apnea" is Greek for "without breathing." Each pause can last 10 to 20 seconds or more. Although sleep apnea is a common disorder, approximately 75 to 80 percent of OSA cases remain undiagnosed. OSA, the most common form of sleep apnea, can result in fragmented sleep and low blood oxygen levels. If untreated, OSA can raise your risk of having high blood pressure and even a heart attack or stroke. Recent studies also suggest that sleep apnea may negatively affect blood sugar control in people with diabetes. Patients with OSA often report trouble concentrating, suffering from morning headaches and being excessively sleepy. The good news is that OSA can be diagnosed and treated.
If you have OSA, the upper part of your airway may become temporarily obstructed during sleep by your tongue, excess tissue (typically as a result of obesity), enlarged tonsils, a large uvula (the small fleshy tissue that hangs from the soft palate at the back of your throat) or even by excessively relaxed throat muscles. Because air cannot easily flow into or out of the nose or mouth, it's more difficult to breathe. The increased effort of breathing causes a suction force in the upper part of the airway that causes it to collapse further and may result in sleep disruption and awakenings. Partial airway obstruction causes snoring, but as the airway becomes more obstructed, the flow of air may become compromised and complete airway obstruction may result. Other consequences of airway obstruction include low levels of oxygen and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. With each abrupt change from deep sleep to light sleep, a signal goes from the brain to the upper airway muscles to open the airway; normal breathing resumes, often with a loud snort or gasp.
© 2008 National Women’s Health Resource Center, Inc. (NWHRC) All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the NWHRC. 1-877-986-9472 (toll-free). On the Web at: www.healthywomen.org.