Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person's breathing is interrupted during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times during the night.
There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central. Obstructive sleep apnea is the more common of the two. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs as repetitive episodes of complete or partial upper airway blockage during sleep. During an apneic episode, the diaphragm and chest muscles work harder as the pressure increases to open the airway. Breathing usually resumes with a loud gasp or body jerk. These episodes can interfere with sound sleep, reduce the flow of oxygen to vital organs, and cause heart rhythm irregularities.
In central sleep apnea, the airway is not blocked but the brain fails to signal the muscles to breathe due to instability in the respiratory control center. Central apnea is named as such because it is related to the function of the central nervous system.
Sleep apnea occurs in about 25 percent of men and nearly 10 percent of women. Sleep apnea can affect people of all ages, including babies and children and particularly people over the age of fifty and those who are overweight. Certain physical traits and clinical features are common in patients with obstructive sleep apnea. These include excessive weight, large neck, and structural abnormalities reducing the diameter of the upper airway, such as nasal obstruction, a low-hanging soft palate, enlarged tonsils, or a small jaw with an overbite. These figures illustrate the upper airway in normal sleep (A; person is lying on back, face up) and in obstructive sleep apnea (B). The arrows indicate complete obstruction in the back of the throat.
Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a blockage of the airway, usually when the soft tissue in the rear of the throat collapses during sleep. Central sleep apnea is usually observed in patients with central nervous system dysfunction, such as following a stroke or in patients with neuromuscular diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It is also common in patients with heart failure and other forms of cardiac and pulmonary disease.
Often the first signs of OSA are recognized not by the patient, but by the bed partner. Many of those affected have no sleep complaints. The most common signs and symptoms of OSA include:
People with central sleep apnea more often report recurrent awakenings or insomnia, although they may also experience a choking or gasping sensation upon awakening.
Symptoms in children may not be as obvious and include:
The diagnosis of sleep apnea is relatively straightforward. If your doctor determines that you have symptoms suggestive of sleep apnea, then your doctor may ask you to have a sleep evaluation with a sleep specialist or may order an overnight sleep study to objectively evaluate for sleep apnea. Testing includes having an overnight sleep study called a polysomnogram (PSG). A PSG is performed in a sleep laboratory under the direct supervision of a trained technologist. During the test, a variety of body functions, such as the electrical activity of the brain, eye movements, muscle activity, heart rate, breathing patterns, air flow, and blood oxygen levels are recorded at night during sleep.
In some cases, a Home Sleep Test (HST) may be performed instead. This is a modified type of sleep study that can be done in the comfort of home. It records fewer body functions than PSG, including airflow, breathing effort, blood oxygen levels and snoring to confirm a diagnosis of moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea. It is not appropriate to be used as a screening tool for patients without symptoms. It is not used for patients with significant medical problems (such as heart failure, moderate to severe cardiac disease, neuromuscular disease, or moderate to severe pulmonary disease). It is also not used for patients who have other sleep disorders (such as central sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, insomnia, circadian rhythm disorders, parasomnias, or narcolepsy) in addition to the suspected obstructive sleep apnea.
Conservative treatments—In mild cases of obstructive sleep apnea, conservative therapy may be all that is needed. Overweight persons can benefit from losing weight. Even a 10 percent weight loss can reduce the number of apneic events for most patients. However, losing weight can be difficult to do with untreated obstructive sleep apnea due to increased appetite and metabolism changes that can occur with obstructive sleep apnea. Individuals with obstructive sleep apnea should avoid the use of alcohol and certain sleeping pills, which make the airway more likely to collapse during sleep and prolong the apneic periods. In some patients with mild obstructive sleep apnea, breathing pauses occur only when they sleep on their backs. In such cases, using pillows and other devices that help them sleep in a side position may be helpful. People with sinus problems or nasal congestion should use nasal sprays or breathing strips to reduce snoring and improve airflow for more comfortable nighttime breathing. Avoiding sleep deprivation is important for all patients with sleep disorders.
Mechanical therapy—Positive Airway Pressure (PAP) therapy is the preferred initial treatment for most people with obstructive sleep apnea. With PAP therapy, patients wear a mask over their nose and/or mouth. An air blower gently forces air through the nose and/or mouth. The air pressure is adjusted so that it is just enough to prevent the upper airway tissues from collapsing during sleep. PAP therapy prevents airway closure while in use, but apnea episodes return when PAP is stopped or if it is used improperly. There are several styles, and types of positive airway pressure devices depending on specific needs of patients.
Mandibular advancement devices—These are devices for patients with mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea. Dental appliances or oral mandibular advancement devices that help to prevent the tongue from blocking the throat and/or advance the lower jaw forward can be made. These devices help keep the airway open during sleep. A sleep specialist and dentist (with expertise in oral appliances for this purpose) should jointly determine if this treatment is best for you.
Nasal Expiratory Positive Airway Pressure – The device is worn over both nostrils with the mouth closed to cause an increase in the airway caliber by increasing expiratory resistance.
Oral Pressure Therapy – The device is worn in the mouth with the patient breathing through the nose. A vacuum pump with negative pressure pulls the soft palate forward to open the airway.
Hypoglossal Nerve Stimulator – A stimulator is implanted under the skin on the right side of the chest with electrodes tunneled under the skin to the hypoglossal nerve in the neck and to intercostal muscles in the chest. When the hypoglossal nerve is stimulated, the tongue moves forward out of the airway and the airway is opened.
Surgery—Surgical procedures may help people with obstructive sleep apnea and others who snore but do not have sleep apnea. There are many types of surgical procedures, some of which are performed as outpatient procedures. Surgery is reserved for people who have excessive or malformed tissue obstructing airflow through the nose or throat, such as a deviated nasal septum, markedly enlarged tonsils, or small lower jaw with an overbite that causes the throat to be abnormally narrow. These procedures are typically performed after sleep apnea has failed to respond to conservative measures and a trial of CPAP. Types of surgery include:
If left untreated, sleep apnea can result in a number of health problems including hypertension, stroke, arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy (enlargement of the muscle tissue of the heart), heart failure, diabetes, obesity and heart attacks. In addition, untreated sleep apnea may be responsible for job impairment, work-related accidents, and motor vehicle crashes as well as academic underachievement in children and adolescents.
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 01/29/2015