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What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition that is far more common than generally understood. First described in 1965, sleep apnea is a breathing disorder characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. Apnea comes from the Greek word meaning "want of breath" and is clinically defined as any cessation of breath lasting 10 or more seconds.

There are three types of sleep apnea - obstructive, central, and mixed.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), which is the most common, occurs when soft tissue in the rear of the throat collapses thus closing the airway causing the sleeper to stop breathing. These frequent interruptions may occur up to 30 times or more an hour and cause breath cessations lasting anywhere from 10 seconds to 3 minutes.

Central is the second type of sleep apnea and occurs when the brain fails to signal the diaphragm and chest muscles to breathe (this is more common in older adults as well as those suffering from heart disease or neurological disorders).

Mixed is the third type of sleep apnea, and it is characterized by a combination of both obstructive and central. This disorder initially occurs as central sleep apnea (where the brain fails to signal the chest to breathe); then when the diaphragm suddenly begins moving, the airway is blocked by an obstruction (obstructive sleep apnea). It is not uncommon for someone to experience all three types of apnea in a single night.

So why is sleep apnea bad?

Every time breathing stops, the oxygen level in the blood falls. Eventually, the brain notices the drop and must arouse the body to begin breathing again. Consequently, REM sleep (the deep, restorative sleep cycle) is interrupted, putting additional strain on the heart and lungs to “catch up”. Not only do these apneas reduce the amount of quality, reparative sleep someone receives it reduces the amount of oxygen supplied to the brain which often times is the cause of early morning headaches and overall leads to excessive daytime drowsiness.

What are the risks of sleep apnea?

The consequences of sleep apnea range from annoying to life-threatening. They include: depression, irritability, sexual dysfunction, learning and memory difficulties, falling asleep while at work, on the phone, or driving, high blood pressure, heart attack, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia and stroke. It has been estimated that up to 50 percent of sleep apnea sufferers have high blood pressure. Risk for heart attack and stroke may also increase in those with sleep apnea as well as an overall increase in risk of premature death. In addition, recent studies seem to indicate that sleep apnea may be implicated in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea:
- Family history
- Excess weight
- Large neck
- Recessed chin
- Abnormalities in structure of upper airway
- Smoking
- Alcohol use
- Age
- Ethnicity
Do you have Sleep Apnea? Symptoms may include:
- Loud, excessive snoring
- Excessive daytime sleepiness (falling asleep at inappropriate times)
- High blood pressure
- Memory problems
- Morning headaches
- Feeling of depression
- Gastro-esophageal reflux (heartburn)
- Impotence
- Nocturia (frequent night time urination)
- Weight gain
- Limited attention
- Lethargy
- Poor judgment
- Personality issues
- Hyperactivity, especially in children