What Is It?
The word “apnea” comes from Greek and means “absence of breath.” Sleep apnea is a condition characterized by repeated episodes during sleep when the person actually stops breathing for a few seconds, usually followed by abrupt awakening from sleep. Most persons with sleep apnea snore loudly.
What Is Sleep Apnea’s Prevalence?
Sleep apnea occurs in 3% to 7% of men and 2% to 5% of women in the United States. It occurs in up to 78% of morbidly obese persons.
What Is Sleep Apnea’s Cause?
By far the most common type of sleep apnea (95% of cases) is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). It occurs when the muscles of the throat relax enough to allow the tongue to fall backward and block the airway. This causes the sleeper to awaken abruptly, though the awakening is usually brief enough that the person does not remember it in the morning.
There are risk factors that make sleep apnea more likely. Any condition that causes swelling of throat structures, such as tonsillitis or strep throat, can cause it. Sleep apnea is more common in obese persons who have a body mass index of 28 or higher and a neck circumference of 42 cm or greater. Consumption of alcohol and the use of certain medications can also cause apnea.
The first and most obvious effect of sleep apnea is disruption of sleep, which leads to daytime sleepines, excessive tiredness and headaches. Sleep apnea can lead to other serious conditions such as heart arrhythmias, stroke or diabetes.
The standard treatment for sleep apnea is to have the patient sleep wearing a mask that is connected to a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. The CPAP delivers air into the airway at a higher pressure than the surrounding atmosphere, which helps to keep the airway open. There are many different types of CPAP masks to fit all different shapes and sizes of faces. For patients who can’t tolerate CPAP there are oral appliances which provide external support to keep the jaw forward and the airway open; these are not usually effective in severe cases.