Sleep Apnea

What is it?

Sleep apnea can be a serious sleep disorder where breathing stops and starts during sleep. This process can happen hundreds of times during sleep reducing the amount of oxygen delivered to your brain and the rest of your body. The most common form of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea and it occurs when the muscles that control breathing relax. Central sleep apnea is less common, but occurs when the brain does not send the correct signals to the muscles that control breathing. Anyone at any age is at risk of being affected by sleep apnea. If left untreated sleep apnea may cause poor performance at school, work, and in your everyday activities.

Causes

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles at the back of your throat relax. When the muscles relax, your throat closes as you breathe in and you can’t get enough air to your lungs. This can lower the level of oxygen in your blood, which leads to fatigue. However, your brain senses this lack of oxygen and briefly rouses you from sleep to reopen your airway. This waking tends to be so brief that you don’t remember it, but it can lead to a restless night sleep. Central sleep apnea occurs when your brain doesn’t transmit the correct signals to your breathing muscles. You may awaken with shortness of breath and/or have a hard time getting to sleep.

Risk Factors

  • Overweight
  • Age 40+
  • Large neck sizes (typically 17 inches or greater for men & 16 or greater in women)
  • Having large tonsils, tongue, or small jaw bone
  • Hereditary- family history of sleep apnea
  • Gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD
  • Nasal obstruction due to a deviated septum, allergies, or sinus problems

Treatment

For milder cases of sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend only lifestyle changes. This can include losing weight and quitting smoking. If you have moderate to severe sleep apnea, you may benefit from a machine that delivers air pressure through a mask placed over your nose while you sleep called a CPAP (Continuous positive airway pressure). With a CPAP on, the air pressure is somewhat greater than that of the air around it, and this is just enough to keep your airway passages open, and preventing your throat to close up. For certain patients, surgery is an option as well. Each patient is unique and should discuss their medical and surgical options with an ENT physician.

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