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Sleep Apnea Defined-Sleep Apnea Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

Updated on February 25, 2012

Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder causing a temporary cessation or restriction of breathing while a person is asleep. These episodes usually last for seconds, pulling the person out of a deep sleep to shift their position and begin normal breathing again. Sleep apnea causes are health and age-related issues and there is more than one type.

To be clear, when breathing pauses completely, it is an apnea episode. When the flow of air is restricted but not stopped, it is a hypopnea episode. Interestingly, the A.D.A.M encyclopedia states that most people have occasional and brief apnea episodes.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Statistically the most common type, obstructive sleep apnea is caused by loss of voluntary muscle control of the soft palate and uvula. As these muscles relax, the airway is partially obstructed, and breathing is restricted or stopped temporarily.

The obstructive type usually causes apnea episodes, but can also result in restricted breathing which leads to the individual not getting enough oxygen, or a condition called hypoxia.

Hypoxia creates stress on the body by preventing the REM sleep cycle, increasing heart rate and blood pressure, and in general preventing quality sleep.

This type is characterized by escalating snoring, followed by a silent period of no breathing, and then by the person snorting and gasping for air. Without intervention, this pattern will repeat itself throughout the night.


The second type is central sleep apnea. This condition causes breathing cessation like the obstructive type, but does so because the brain is not transmitting signals to the breathing muscles.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

Who is at risk of being affected by this sleeping disorder? The obstructive type is most prevalent in overweight, middle-aged men, but affects older women as well. Other factors causing this disorder include:

-A short lower jaw relative to the upper.

-An irregularly shaped palate prone to blocking the airway.

-Enlarged tonsils/adenoids.

-A large diameter neck.

-A large tongue.

Central sleep apnea is often, but not always associated with a disease, brain trauma or spinal trauma. Some of the many causes of this problem are:

-Being obese

-Congestive heart failure

-Degeneration of the cervical spine/base of skull

-Encephalitis that has damaged the brainstem



-Narcotics grade painkillers

-Other neurologic disease or cerebrovascular trauma.

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

How do you know if you have sleep apnea? Symptoms of sleep apnea include:

-loud snoring followed by silent periods and gasping for air

-extreme fatigue during the day/sleepiness

-cognitive disfunction (increasing memory lapses)

-depression and irritability.

These symptoms are similar to any sleep disorder, but if an individual suspects sleep apnea, they may consider recording themselves while they sleep. Alternatively, go straight to the doctor and a medical specialist can perform a polysomnogram, monitoring your sleep and recording the results.

Central and obstructive sleep apneas share many of the same symptoms, including daytime drowsiness, irritability and headaches that won’t go away. Other symptoms to watch out for include:

-severe leg swelling

-worsening depression

-hyperactive behavior in children

-Irresistible urge to fall asleep during the day

-Muscular weakness or numbness

-Changing voice

-Swallowing difficulties

This is not an exhaustive list, but if several of these symptoms present themselves, it is a good idea to be examined by your doctor.


If testing confirms a person has apnea, lifestyle changes usually recommended. Patients may be advised to lose weight, avoid alcohol and sedatives (especially before bedtime,) and to stop sleeping on their back.

For immediate help getting quality sleep, a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) mask is often used. The mask delivers air through the nose to keep the airway open during sleep.

In some cases, dental devices or surgery may be necessary. UPPP surgery is the most common type, and is done to cut away excess tissue falling back and obstructing the throat.

CPAP or BiPAP (bi-level positive airway pressure,) are frequent treatments for central sleep apnea. Additional treatments for this disorder include drug therapy to stimulate breathing.

With central sleep apnea, the prognosis is usually dependent on treatment of the underlying health issues at the same time as the apnea.


Regardless of the type you have, sedatives, alcohol, tobacco and sleeping aids should be avoided altogether. These substances can complicate a difficult condition, forcing the body to work even harder to deal with the issue.

Other tips on preventing sleep apnea include:

-Raising the head of the bed (4-6 inches is recommended.)

-Sleeping on your side.

-Eating a healthy diet (avoiding sugars, caffeine and large meals before bedtime.)

-Use decongestants to treat stuffy noses instead of antihistamines, which can make an apnea episode worse.

In addition, you can try buying a more comfortable or supportive mattress, a cervical neck pillow or using a humidifier in the room. If sleep apnea symptoms persist, be sure to see a doctor.

Over time, chronic sleep deprivation problems will cause serious health issues; in the short term they will just make you miserable. Remember, good sleep is the first ingredient in a happy life.


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    • frogyfish profile image

      frogyfish 6 years ago from Central United States of America

      You gave some detailed information and some I did not know was actually connected with apnea. Thank you for presenting a helpful explanation for a definite problem.