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What Is Sleep Apnea?

Updated on June 6, 2021
Sam Shepards profile image

I'm Sam. I enjoy writing about sleep and mental health-related topics as well as ways to prevent stress and to relax.

Most people don’t think of snoring as a serious problem. And it usually isn’t. There are lots of reasons a person might snore, from having a cold to simply sleeping in the wrong position. But snoring is also one of the symptoms of a serious condition called sleep apnea, which affects millions of people throughout the entire world.

Sleep apnea does not just cause snoring—though snoring is one of its most major symptoms. Depending on its severity, it can cause a range of different issues and it can become progressively more and more dangerous for the sufferer. But what actually is sleep apnea? And how can you know if you have it?

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is an obstruction to your airways during sleep. During sleep, breathing will either be really shallow or can even stop entirely. When breathing stops, the body is jolted awake. Some people will wake all the way up and will choke and gasp for air, while others will wake up only enough to readjust their position and then fall back asleep again.

Either way, the normal sleeping pattern is distributed. Some people will have up to a hundred episodes of breathing cessation throughout a night, which will leave them very tired the following day.

While those who have only just started experiencing sleep apnea will usually not notice its effects at first, they will eventually start to realize that they are being deprived of sleep. They will notice that they are sleepy, that they have difficulty concentrating, and that their reflexes are starting to suffer.

Sleep apnea is connected with and can even cause a wide variety of even more serious health problems including high blood pressure, stroke, weight gain, depression, heart disease, diabetes, and more.

There are a range of different solutions for this problem, including lifestyle changes, masks, and other options that make it possible to stop not just the snoring that might be annoying your partner or spouse, but also the other, more dangerous side effects that accompany sleep apnea.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are essentially three different types of sleep apnea, all of which are equally worrisome, though not equally common. These types are:

Obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type and is characterized by soft tissue (the soft palate) relaxing during sleep and covering the airway. The vibration of air trying to pass this obstruction is what causes the loud snoring that is often associated with sleep apnea. There are a range of reasons that this obstruction might occur and a number of conditions that can exacerbate it.

Central sleep apnea

Less common than obstructive sleep apnea is central sleep apnea. This occurs when the central nervous system does not signal the muscles and tissues that have to do with breathing to actually breathe during sleep. Those who have this type of apnea usually will not snore, but they will still have the periods of wakefulness and sleep that can make it dangerous to your health.

Complex sleep apnea

If a person has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea, then they have complex sleep apnea. A combination of both nervous system issues and obstruction of the airways will cause snoring and other serious problems.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Those the three different types of sleep apnea are not identical, they will share a number of the same signs and symptoms. Some of the most common and recognizable symptoms include:

  • Chronic snoring – This snoring is not the quiet snoring that someone who has a cold or allergies might do when they are congested. It is loud. If you have ever heard someone with sleep apnea snore, you know why some people say, “He snores like a buzz saw.” It is loud and constant. It might be so loud that it does not just annoy a person sharing his bed, but everyone in the house.

  • Choking, gasping, and snorting – Another symptom that the individual might not be able to identify in themselves, is the occurrence of gasping, choking, or snorting during sleep. This signifies that the person is not getting enough air into their lungs and that the body recognizes that it is not breathing. It then wakes the individual up, causing them to choke and gasp to try to get air into their lungs.

  • Period of no breathing – This is something that another person will have to observe in an individual. If they are breathing regularly and then, all of a sudden, stop breathing, it is likely due to sleep apnea. They might not wake up or choke and gasp, but if there are intermittent pauses in their breathing, in which inhaling and exhaling completely ceases, this is a good sign that that person has sleep apnea.

  • Fatigue during the day – Sleep apnea makes it impossible to get the deep, REM sleep that your body needs in order to feel rested and restored the next day. No matter how long a person with sleep apnea sleeps, they will never feel completely restored and ready to take on the day.

  • Morning headaches – Most people take a nap in order to get rid of a headache. If you wake up with one, it might be because of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea does not just make it impossible to sleep, it also puts pressure and causes strain on the neck, which can develop into a piercing headache as you wake up.

  • Waking up frequently during the night – While you might not feel short of breath when you wake up during the night, if you do wake up multiple times a night, with no other cause, it could be because your body is waking itself up to prevent choking or suffocating.

Those with central sleep apnea will not always snore, but they will experience all of these other symptoms. Obstructive sleep apnea is usually characterized by a combination of these symptoms. While snoring or fatigue itself may not be a sure sign of sleep apnea, experiencing one or more of these issues at the same time could be.

How Can I Know If I Have Sleep Apnea?

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you are concerned that you might have sleep apnea:

  • How often do I snore? Is it more than three nights a week? If you do snore more than three nights a week and the cause cannot be traced back to drinking or smoking, sleep apnea could be the cause.

  • How loud is the snoring? Snoring caused by sleep apnea will be very loud. It can be heard through a wall or door.

  • Do you ever stop breathing during sleep? You will probably need someone else to tell you whether or not you do this. If you do, that is a sure sign of sleep apnea.

  • Do you ever fall asleep or feel drowsy during the day? Drowsiness can be caused by many things, but if it is noticed in addition to one of these other symptoms, it can be connected to sleep apnea.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2016 Sam Shepards


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