What is Sleep Apnea: Symptoms, Types, Treatments, and Living with Sleep Apnea

Last updated: September 17th, 2023

What is Sleep Apnea: Symptoms, Types, and Treatments

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which a person’s breathing temporarily decreases or stops while they sleep. People with sleep apnea have frequent episodes of abnormal breathing during sleep and may not get the oxygen their body needs. This can cause them to feel tired during the day. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to serious health consequences. To reduce the risk of side effects and long-term health issues, it is important for people with symptoms of sleep apnea to talk to their doctor and seek treatment.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), central sleep apnea (CSA), and mixed sleep apnea. OSA occurs when a person’s airway becomes partially or completely blocked repeatedly while they sleep, causing their breathing to become abnormally shallow or absent. Airway blockages may be caused by structures in the throat, excess weight in the face or neck, or other changes that constrict the airway. CSA is caused by an issue in a part of the brain called the brain stem, which controls a person’s breathing. Problems in the brain stem trigger a person’s respiration to slow or stop for brief periods. Mixed sleep apnea is when a person has symptoms of both CSA and OSA.

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

The symptoms of sleep apnea depend on which type is diagnosed. However, the types of sleep apnea share some common symptoms including: snoring with long pauses in breathing, gasping or choking during sleep, excessive sleepiness during the day, waking up frequently to urinate, headaches, depression or irritability, trouble focusing.

When to See a Doctor

People with symptoms of sleep apnea should talk to their doctor to discuss diagnosis and treatment options. In some cases, sleep apnea may have serious health consequences and must be treated as soon as possible.

Should I Get Tested for Sleep Apnea?

Talk to your doctor if you have symptoms of sleep apnea, as the only way to definitively diagnose sleep apnea is to get tested. During a sleep test, a person’s vital signs and breathing are monitored while they sleep. This test will show if a person is having difficulty breathing during sleep, if there are many pauses in their breathing, or if oxygen levels drop.

Sleep Apnea Causes

Sleep apnea occurs when a person’s airway is blocked or narrowed during sleep, or when their brain signals incorrectly cause their respiratory muscles to stop working. The most common cause of obstructive sleep apnea is tissue in the throat called the tonsils and adenoids, which can relax and collapse into the throat during sleep, obstructing the airway. People who have a large neck circumference, drink alcohol, or smoke are more likely to have this type of sleep apnea. The most common cause of central sleep apnea is instability in the brain’s respiratory control center. In some cases, a combination of OSA and CSA can cause mixed sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea Treatment

Treatment for sleep apnea depends on the type of sleep apnea that is diagnosed and the severity of the disorder. Generally, the most commonly used treatment for OSA is wearing a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine at night while sleeping. This is a form of positive airway pressure therapy that can help a person sleep without their airway becoming blocked. In cases of CSA and mixed sleep apnea, treatments may include medications to stabilize blood oxygen levels, the use of a CPAP machine, and lifestyle changes such as weight loss, avoiding alcohol or sleeping pills, and quitting smoking. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to correct a structural problem with the soft tissue in the throat.

Living with Sleep Apnea

When managing sleep apnea, it is important to follow treatment plans and appointments and to make lifestyle changes if needed. Keeping a sleep journal to track sleep patterns can help manage sleep apnea, as well as reducing allergens in the bedroom, keeping the bedroom dark and quiet, and avoiding alcohol or sleeping pills.

Sleep apnea can have serious health implications if not treated properly. Talking to your doctor about any symptoms of sleep apnea and getting tested is the best way to figure out the cause of the problem and to make sure it is treated correctly and with optimal results.

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