Sleep is critical to good health. But what if someone stops breathing for short pauses in the middle of the night, breathes shallowly, snorts, snores, gasps for air, or breathes infrequently?
This is known as sleep apnea and it could be contributing to a great number of health issues. Those disruptions through the night may last 30 seconds to several minutes and occur hundreds of times. This results in a lack of oxygen to all tissues, including the brain.
Sleep apnea can be tricky to diagnose, as there is no blood test for it. What's needed is for someone to be sleeping in the same room to notice the snoring, gasping, snorting, and pauses through the night, in order to raise concern.
Some people have mild sleep apnea that might be subtle, in that their snoring or pauses do not wake up others, yet they themselves wake feeling tired and unrested without knowing why.
Others with more severe sleep apnea are often told their snoring sounds like a freight train, or their own gasping for air wakes them up, such that they feel like they were choking.
According to the National Institutes of Health, obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form, with central sleep apnea being less common.
Someone with obstructive sleep apnea has an airway that becomes partially or fully blocked during sleep due to excess weight, to large tonsils compressing the area, or to anatomical defects.
Central sleep apnea occurs when the part of the brain that handles breathing does not correctly communicate with the muscle required for breathing, resulting in pauses or infrequent breaths while sleeping.
When the body receives less oxygen than it needs, it responds by releasing the hormones involved with stress such as cortisol and adrenaline.
The increase in these hormones coupled with a lack of oxygen can put a person with sleep apnea at higher risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, irregular heartbeats, and heart failure. These people often also wake up with a headache, are very tired, and experience brain fog through the day, due to this lack of oxygen and quality sleep.
In addition, obstructive sleep apnea is a known risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes.
Diagnosis is made with an overnight sleep study, often done at a sleep center, although some may be able to do their testing at home.
The patient who is suspected to have sleep apnea is connected to wires that measure oxygen, blood pressure, heart rate, brain activity, and eye movement. All this is done in an effort to evaluate the quality, events that occur, and length of time someone sleeps. That includes finding out if and when they go into their REM sleep cycles.
This information is then processed to determine whether someone has sleep apnea and how best to treat it.
Treatments can vary, based on the diagnosis and suspected cause. Naturally, if someone’s weight is the biggest issue because of pressure on the neck and collapsing the airway, then efforts to lose weight become a priority. Those with anatomical issues or enlarged tonsils may require surgery to correct the situation.
Some people may have success with mouth pieces that adjust the jaw and tongue to prevent airway problems. Those with more moderate-to-severe sleep apnea may need the continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP) to help force open the airways for better sleep.
Do not let sleep apnea ruin your health or the health of someone you love. Talk with your health care provider about your symptoms, and seriously consider being proactive by having a sleep study done.
1) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Key Sleep Disorders.
2) National Institutes of Health. (2012). How is Sleep Apnea Treated.
3) National Institutes of Health. (2012). What is Sleep Apnea?
4) Rajan, P and Greenberg, H. (2015). Obstructive sleep apnea as a risk factor for type 2 diabetes mellitus.
5) Stansbury, RC, and Strollo, PJ. (2015). Clinical Manifestations of Sleep Apnea.
Reviewed November 18, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith