Sleep apnea is quite a common illness with varying degrees of severity. Serious cases of sleep apnea can be life-threatening. Apnea means a cessation (stopping) of breath, so sleep apnea is when there is a temporary stopping of breath during sleeping hours. Sleep apnea is classed as a sleeping disorder. This paused breathing usually occurs for short periods of time, but can happen as often as every couple of minutes.
Sometimes breaths are very shallow, as the airway can become greatly narrowed instead of closing completely. There are many symptoms associated with sleep apnea, but like many other sleeping disorders, it can go undiagnosed for large amounts of time. This is because the person with the sleeping disorder is not always aware of what they are doing during the hours that they sleep.
There are three main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea is the most common, then central sleep apnea and finally complex sleep apnea.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea is by far the most common form of sleep apnea, accounting for the majority of cases. This occurs when the airway of a person is temporarily narrowed or blocked by the soft tissue surrounding the throat.
The vibration of the soft tissue can cause snoring, though not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, and vice versa. This can cause excessive carbon dioxide levels and reduced oxygen levels in the body, and can have significant consequences and lead to other illnesses.
Central Sleep Apnea
Central Sleep Apnea is far less common. It is caused when the brain temporarily fails to send signals activating the muscles associated with breathing. This is very different to obstructive sleep apnea.
People who have had problems with the brainstem or spinal cord may be more susceptible to getting sleep apnea. They may also be more susceptible if they have any neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson Disease. Obesity may make a person more likely to get both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.
Complex sleep apnea is a combination of both central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea, it is very rare.
- Shortness of breath at night
- Waking up gasping for air
- Pauses of breath at night
- Chronic and loud snoring
- Frequent feeling of fatigue, lethargy and exhaustion during waking hours
There are many significant consequences if an individual does not get their sleep apnea diagnosed and treated. Due to low oxygen saturation levels in the blood, many other illnesses can stem from sleep apnea, particularly if it goes unnoticed for prolonged periods of time.
There is a link between high blood pressure and sleep apnea, as the heart has to pump blood harder and faster due to low oxygen saturation levels in the blood. Sleep apnea has even been associated with anxiety and depression. All of this may sound dramatic, but the effect of lack of oxygen and too much carbon dioxide in the body can be devastating.
Considering how serious sleep apnea can be, there are usually a range of treatments available. The mildest cases of sleep apnea may be effectively treated with a change in lifestyle, particularly if the person is overweight.
A simple change in sleeping position may cure the illness if it is very mild.
A slightly more serious case may be treated with a mouthpiece that helps to keep the airway open. Moderate to severe cases may be treated with a sleep apnea machine. The most serious cases may need surgical procedures, most of which take place under general anaesthesia.