Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. Typically, normal breathing then starts again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound. Sleep apnea usually is a chronic condition that disrupts your sleep three or more nights each week. You often move out of deep sleep and into light sleep when your breathing pauses or becomes shallow. This results in poor sleep quality that makes you tired during the day. Sleep apnea is one of the leading causes of excessive daytime sleepiness.
Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed. Doctors usually can't detect the condition during routine office visits. Also, there are no blood tests for the condition. Most people who have sleep apnea don't know they have it because it only occurs during sleep. A family member and/or bed partner may first notice the signs of sleep apnea.
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. This most often means the airway has collapsed or is blocked during sleep. The blockage may cause shallow breathing or breathing pauses. When you try to breathe, any air that squeezes past the blockage can cause loud snoring. Obstructive sleep apnea happens more often in people who are overweight, but it can affect anyone.
Untreated, sleep apnea can:
Lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, surgery, and/or breathing devices successfully treat sleep apnea in many people.
What Causes Sleep Apnea?
When you're awake, throat muscles help keep your airway stiff and open so air can flow into your lungs. When you sleep, these muscles are more relaxed. Normally, the relaxed throat muscles don't stop your airway from staying open to allow air into your lungs.
But if you have obstructive sleep apnea, your airways can be blocked or narrowed during sleep because:
Not enough air flows into your lungs when your airways are fully or partly blocked during sleep. This can cause loud snoring and a drop in your blood oxygen levels.
When the oxygen drops to dangerous levels, it triggers your brain to disturb your sleep. This helps tighten the upper airway muscles and open your windpipe. Normal breaths then start again, often with a loud snort or choking sound.
The frequent drops in oxygen levels and reduced sleep quality trigger the release of stress hormones. These compounds raise your heart rate and increase your risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and irregular heartbeats. The hormones also raise the risk for or worsen heart failure. Untreated sleep apnea also can lead to changes in how your body uses energy. These changes increase your risk for obesity and diabetes.
Who Is At Risk for Sleep Apnea?
It's estimated that more than 12 million American adults have obstructive sleep apnea.
Major Signs and Symptoms
One of the most common signs of obstructive sleep apnea is loud and chronic snoring. Pauses may occur in the snoring. Choking or gasping may follow the pauses. You're asleep when the snoring or gasping occurs. You will likely not know you're having problems breathing or be able to judge how severe the problem is. Your family members or bed partner will often notice these problems before you do.
Another common sign of sleep apnea is fighting sleepiness during the day, at work or while driving. You may find yourself rapidly falling asleep during the quiet moments of the day when you're not active.
Other Signs and Symptoms
Others signs and symptoms of sleep apnea may include:
In children, sleep apnea can cause hyperactivity, poor school performance and aggressiveness. Children who have sleep apnea also may have unusual sleeping positions, bedwetting, and may breathe through their mouths instead of their noses during the day.
Doctors diagnose sleep apnea based on your medical and family histories, a physical exam and results from sleep studies. Usually, your primary care doctor evaluates your symptoms first. He or she then decides whether you need to see a sleep specialist.
A sleep study is the most accurate test for diagnosing sleep apnea. It captures what happens with your breathing while you sleep. A sleep study is done in a sleep center or sleep lab, which may be part of a hospital. You may stay overnight in the sleep center.
Lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, breathing devices, and/or surgery are used to treat sleep apnea. Currently, there are no medicines to treat sleep apnea. Lifestyle changes and/or mouthpieces may be enough to relieve mild sleep apnea. People who have moderate or severe sleep apnea also will need breathing devices or surgery.
If you have mild sleep apnea, some changes in daily activities or habits may be all that you need.
A mouthpiece, sometimes called an oral appliance, may help some people who have mild sleep apnea. Your doctor also may recommend a mouthpiece if you snore loudly but don't have sleep apnea.
Continuous positive airway pressure is the most common treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea in adults. A CPAP machine uses a mask that fits over your mouth and nose, or just over your nose. The machine gently blows air into your throat. The air presses on the wall of your airway. The air pressure is adjusted so that it's just enough to stop the airways from becoming narrowed or blocked during sleep.
Some people who have sleep apnea may benefit from surgery. The type of surgery and how well it works depend on the cause of the sleep apnea. Surgery is done to widen breathing passages. It usually involves removing, shrinking or stiffening excess tissue in the mouth and throat or resetting the lower jaw.
Surgery to shrink or stiffen excess tissue in the mouth or throat is done in a doctor's office or a hospital. Shrinking tissue may involve small shots or other treatments to the tissue. A series of such treatments may be needed to shrink the excess tissue. To stiffen excess tissue, the doctor makes a small cut in the tissue and inserts a small piece of stiff plastic.
Surgery to remove excess tissue is only done in a hospital. You're given medicine that makes you sleep during the surgery. After surgery, you may have throat pain that lasts for one to two weeks.
Surgery to remove the tonsils, if they're blocking the airway, may be very helpful for some children. Your child's doctor may suggest waiting some time to see whether these tissues shrink on their own. This is common as small children grow.
-National Institutes of Health