Understanding Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a potentially dangerous health condition in which breathing routinely pauses as one sleeps, resulting in disrupted sleeping patterns. Most people who have sleep apnea are not aware of the condition because the breathing lapses only occur during sleep.

Though the pauses in breathing will not typically cause you to wake fully, sleep is generally not restful. It is common to feel groggy and fatigued throughout the day.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Obesity

The most common form of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea.

This condition develops when the airway becomes blocked by tissue or collapses periodically throughout the night. Obesity is a primary risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea.

Certain factors will increase your risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea:

  • Being overweight
  • Increased age
  • Family history of sleep apnea or obesity
  • Large neck size

For someone with obstructive sleep apnea, the obstructed airway will make it difficult to breathe, sometimes resulting in paused breathing or shallow breaths. This causes the oxygen level in the blood to drop. When oxygen levels in the blood become too low, the brain signals the body to move to a shallower level of sleep.

These lapses in breathing may last several seconds, and can occur as many as 30 times in the course of one hour.

illustration of normal Airway Without Sleep Apnea

In a healthy individual, air travels freely through the airway into the lungs.

illustration of what happens with obstructive sleep apnea

In the case of obstructive sleep apnea, enlarged tissue blocks the air passageway, disrupting breathing patterns.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Someone with sleep apnea will often snore loudly, and may make choking sounds throughout the night in an effort to catch his or her breath. Since the person with sleep apnea is asleep as the signs appear, it is often left to a spouse or close family member to bring snoring to that person’s attention.

Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Chronic snoring
  • Repetitive choking sounds during sleep as you catch your breath after a breathing lapse
  • Sore throat
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Morning headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Insomnia or difficulty staying asleep

Prolonged disruption to your sleeping patterns can negatively influence your physical and mental health. Chronic fatigue increases your risk for depression, anxiety and weight gain. If left untreated, sleep apnea is associated with an increased risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and type-2 diabetes.

Diagnosis and Treatment for Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is diagnosed after a revision of your medical history, and is often confirmed through a sleep study, in which sleeping and breathing patterns are monitored over the course of the night.

The most common treatment for sleep apnea is the use of a device called a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. This machine is connected to a face mask that is worn through the night. It delivers light pressure through the airway to prevent it from becoming obstructed, thus encouraging better, uninterrupted sleep.

Weight loss can reduce the severity of sleep apnea, and in some cases return sleeping and breathing patterns to normal.