Sleep apnea is a medical condition characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. An "apnea" is a breathing pause that lasts at least 10 seconds, and many people with the disease experience several episodes each night. Someone with sleep apnea can feel exhausted when waking in the morning, but the condition can also lead to a number of other health complications.
There are two forms of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. With obstructive sleep apnea, the muscles in the throat narrow during sleep and cause the pauses in breathing. Central sleep apnea refers to a problem with the brain regulating breathing during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea is much more common than central sleep apnea.
Symptoms and Complications
Since apnea occurs during sleep, it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose. But chronic snoring is a warning sign of the disease. Other symptoms include sleepiness and fatigue throughout the day, as well as irritability, depression and difficulty concentrating.
Over time, the oxygen starvation caused by sleep apnea can lead to other health complications. These can include obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack. Sleep apnea can also worsen arrhythmias or heart failure, and can raise the chances of having an accident while driving.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Sleep apnea typically needs to be diagnosed using a sleep study called a polysomnogram, or PSG. This is a test that is performed while a person is sleeping, and it monitors oxygen levels, snoring, chest movement and air movement. PSGs are usually performed at a sleep center.
Mild sleep apnea can sometimes be treated with lifestyle changes like avoiding drinking and smoking, losing weight, changing position while sleeping or using a mouthpiece. For more serious cases of sleep apnea, a breathing device called a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine needs to be used while the person sleeps. This machine is attached to a mask, and it continuously blows air into the throat to prevent apnea.
SOURCES: National Sleep Foundation; U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
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