Sleep apnea is a condition whereby you stop breathing whilst you are asleep. These breaks can last up to 20 seconds at a time and may happen hundreds of times each night in serious cases, often without you even knowing it is happening.
Approximately one in fifteen Americans suffer from sleep apnea, so this is more common than what you might think. This doesn’t include the extra 2-4% people who have undiagnosed sleep apnea at any one time.
There are three types of sleep apnea. Obstructive is the main type, and it happens when the soft tissues located in the rear of the throat relax while you sleep, often blocking the air passage and causing you to snore.
The less common type is Central sleep apnea. The brain doesn’t properly control the muscles which manage your breathing while asleep. People with this type of sleep apnea don’t snore. Finally, complex sleep apnea combines the first two types.
There are numerous causes for sleep apnea, but they work basically the same way. Since you are prevented from breathing properly, you need to seek treatment before your condition gets worse. In fact, sleep apnea can be fatal in serious cases, if left too long without treatment.
As you age, signals from the brain that tell your throat muscles to remain stiff while you sleep become weaker, causing the air passage to become narrower or even collapse. And if the airway is narrow, you are more likely to snore and you will experience a drop in the oxygen levels.
If the oxygen level falls low enough, your brain will wake you up momentarily, causing you to snort or choke. Normal breathing starts again, and you go back to sleep soon after that, unaware of what happened. Sleep apnea can increase your risk of high blood pressure, insomnia, stroke, heart attacks, an irregular heartbeat, diabetes and obesity.
To determine the treatment, you usually have a sleep study in hospital. They place a series of leads on your body and head to measure various readings as you sleep. Then they can determine how often you wake up.
Once this level is known, you’re advised to get a Constant Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. You can use this machine at home every night when you sleep. It consists of a small electric device that blows a low level of air when turned on. You can also use an oxygen mask like hospitals use, except this one will be to focus the air towards the back of your throat while you sleep.
This constant flow is enough to keep your airway open so you don’t stop breathing. While some people must maintain this regime for life, for others it is just a temporary form of treatment. For example, if you are carrying excess weight and manage to lose some of it, you may get rid of the sleep apnea completely, or drop it to a level that is manageable without making use of a CPAP machine.
If you are told you snore and / or you have insomnia, you should speak to your doctor to see if you have sleep apnea. If so, get treatment to protect your health and avoid increased risks of poor health down the track.