Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. You may have sleep apnea if you snore loudly, and you feel tired even after a full night's sleep.
The main types of sleep apnea are:
If you think you might have any form of sleep apnea, see your doctor. Treatment can ease your symptoms and may help prevent heart problems and other complications.
The signs and symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas overlap, sometimes making the type of sleep apnea more difficult to determine. The most common signs and symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas include:
Consult a medical professional if you experience, or if your partner notices, the following:
Many people don't think of snoring as a sign of something potentially serious, and not everyone who has sleep apnea snores. But be sure to talk to your doctor if you experience loud snoring, especially snoring that's punctuated by periods of silence.
Ask your doctor about any sleep problem that leaves you chronically fatigued, sleepy and irritable. Excessive daytime drowsiness (hypersomnia) may be due to sleep apnea or to other disorders, such as narcolepsy.
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax. These muscles support the soft palate, the triangular piece of tissue hanging from the soft palate (uvula), the tonsils, the side walls of the throat and the tongue.
When the muscles relax, your airway narrows or closes as you breathe in, and you can't get an adequate breath in. This may lower the level of oxygen in your blood.
Your brain senses this inability to breathe and briefly rouses you from sleep so that you can reopen your airway. This awakening is usually so brief that you don't remember it.
You may make a snorting, choking or gasping sound. This pattern can repeat itself five to 30 times or more each hour, all night long. These disruptions impair your ability to reach the desired deep, restful phases of sleep, and you'll probably feel sleepy during your waking hours.
People with obstructive sleep apnea may not be aware that their sleep was interrupted. In fact, some people with this type of sleep apnea think they sleep well all night.
Central sleep apnea is a less common form of sleep apnea that occurs when your brain fails to transmit signals to your breathing muscles. This means you make no effort to breathe for a short period of time. You may awaken with shortness of breath or have a difficult time getting to sleep or staying asleep.
Your doctor may make an evaluation based on your signs and symptoms or may refer you to a sleep disorder center. There, a sleep specialist can help you decide on your need for further evaluation.
Such an evaluation often involves overnight monitoring of your breathing and other body functions during sleep. Home sleep testing may also be an option. Tests to detect sleep apnea may include:
Home sleep tests. In some cases, your doctor may provide you with simplified tests to be used at home to diagnose sleep apnea. These tests usually involve measuring your heart rate, blood oxygen level, airflow and breathing patterns. If you have sleep apnea, the test results will show drops in your oxygen level during apneas and subsequent rises with awakenings.
If the results are abnormal, your doctor may be able to prescribe a therapy without further testing. Portable monitoring devices don't detect all cases of sleep apnea, so your doctor may still recommend polysomnography even if your initial results are normal.
If you have obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor may refer you to an ear, nose and throat doctor to rule out any blockage in your nose or throat. An evaluation by a heart doctor (cardiologist) or a doctor who specializes in the nervous system (neurologist) may be necessary to look for causes of central sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is considered a serious medical condition. Complications may include:
Daytime fatigue. The repeated awakenings associated with sleep apnea make normal, restorative sleep impossible. People with sleep apnea often experience severe daytime drowsiness, fatigue and irritability.
You may have difficulty concentrating and find yourself falling asleep at work, while watching TV or even when driving. People with sleep apnea have an increased risk of motor vehicle and workplace accidents.
You may also feel quick tempered, moody or depressed. Children and adolescents with sleep apnea may do poorly in school or have behavior problems.
High blood pressure or heart problems. Sudden drops in blood oxygen levels that occur during sleep apnea increase blood pressure and strain the cardiovascular system. If you have obstructive sleep apnea, your risk of high blood pressure (hypertension) is greater than if you don't.
Obstructive sleep apnea may increase the risk of recurrent heart attack, and abnormal heartbeats, such as atrial fibrillation. Obstructive sleep apnea also increases the risk of stroke. If there's underlying heart disease, these multiple episodes of low blood oxygen (hypoxia or hypoxemia) can lead to sudden death from an irregular heartbeat.
In many cases, self-care may be the most appropriate way for you to deal with obstructive sleep apnea and possibly central sleep apnea. Try these tips:
Sleep apnea can affect anyone, even children. But certain factors increase your risk of sleep apnea: