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Sleep Apnea, Causes And Effects

Updated on June 11, 2011

Causes And Effects

Frequent, loud snoring could be a sign of sleep apnea, a potentially serious disorder in which breathing continuously stops and starts while sleeping.

In most cases it is treatable, but to the uninformed it’s usually overlooked as nothing serious. But it can be extremely dangerous to your health. If you suspect you’re afflicted, see a physician as soon as possible.

Sleep apnea is a condition affecting the way a person breathes while sleeping. Breathing pauses or stops. These lapses usually last between 10 to 20 seconds and can happen hundreds of times a night, thereby interrupting a good night’s sleep. This sleep deprivation results in daytime drowsiness, and slower reflexes and concentration. Anyone can have sleep apnea, even children.

Serious Problems

If left untreated sleep apnea can lead to serious problems over time, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

There are basically 3 types of sleep apnea, obstructive, central and complex. Obstructive is the most common. The soft tissue at the back of the throat relaxes resulting in airway blockage and loud snoring. Stroke incidents have been associated with obstructive sleep apnea and sufferers also have a 30% higher risk of heart attack or premature death.

Obese individuals with low muscle tone and soft airway tissue airway are at high risk for obstructive sleep apnea. The elderly are more likely to have this type. The sign most suggestive of sleep apneas happens when both snoring and breathing stop. When breathing resumes, there is typically a deep gasp and then snoring continues.

Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea is less common. It entails the central nervous system rather than airway blockage. The brain fails to signal muscles controlling respiration. People with this type don’t usually snore.

Complex sleep apneais a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea.During these episodes oxygen levels in the blood diminishes. The brain counteracts by briefly disrupting sleep enough to jump start breathing again. Individuals having obstructive sleep apnea usually don’t recall waking up. However, in central sleep apnea a person might remember.

Unlike obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea is usually present with serious illness, such as heart disease, stroke, neurological disease, or spinal or brainstem injury. Brain cells need constant oxygen to live. If the level of blood oxygen is depleted long enough, brain damage and even death can occur.

Some things that signal a person might be suffering from this condition could include loud snoring, choking or gasping, long breaks in breathing and extreme daytime sleepiness. Other signs might be morning headaches, fitful sleep and awakening with a sore throat or dry mouth. Additionally, look for insomnia, absent mindedness, irritability, depression and waking up out of breath.

If any of these warning signs are recognized, see a sleep specialist. A diagnosis of sleep apnea may entail an overnight stay at a sleep clinic. Sleep apnea is often recognized by others witnessing an individual during sleep.

It can be difficult to tell if someone has sleep apnea without a proper qualified diagnosis. Not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. On the other hand, not everyone with it snores. The most notable sign will be how you feel during the day. Normal snoring doesn’t impede sleep quality significantly. Even if sleep apnea isn’t the cause of snoring, there are many reasons to deal with a snoring problem. It can affect your bed partner’s rest.

High risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea are being overweight, over 65, black, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander, male and a smoker. Other factors include some physical characteristics, such as a thick neck, deviated septum, receding chin, or enlarged tonsils or adenoids and medical conditions that cause nasal congestion.

However, there are some self help treatments, particularly for mild to moderate sleep apnea. Lose weight, quit smoking, and avoid alcohol and caffeine. In addition, keep a regular sleep schedule. But, if sleep apnea is moderate to severe and self help strategies have failed, see a sleep doctor. A specialist can help find an effective treatment.

Continuous Positive Airflow Pressure (CPAP), is the standard treatment for moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea. In most cases, immediate relief is found in mental and physical energy. The CPAP device is a small machine that provides a steady stream of air that keeps breathing passages open. The patient typically wears a plastic facial mask, connected by a flexible tube and bedside CPAP machine.

If both CPAP and self help tips have met with no success, a dental device or surgical treatment may be needed. The CPAP machine assists with inhaling. On the other hand, a BiPAP machine assists with both inhaling and exhaling and is used in more severe cases.

If relief still hasn't been found, dental devices may be the answer. Most dental devices are acrylic and fit inside the mouth, much like an athlete’s mouth guard. Two common oral devices are the mandibular repositioning or tongue retaining device. They open the airway by bringing the lower jaw or tongue forward during sleep.

However, dental devices are only effective for mild to moderate sleep apnea. And there are some drawbacks including soreness, saliva build-up, nausea or permanent change in position of the jaw, teeth, and mouth. If all else has failed, surgical options may be the answer.

One study conducted in 1993 estimated one in every 15 Americans was affected by at least moderate sleep apnea. The costs of untreated sleep apnea involve more than just health issues. It is estimated the average untreated sleep apnea patient's annual health care costs $1,336 more than an individual without sleep apnea in the United States. This could result in over $3 billion in additional medical costs annually.


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