Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital
 

Sleep Apnea

Sleep Apnea

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition that is far more common than generally understood. Sleep apnea occurs in all age groups and both genders. It is more common in men, although it may be underdiagnosed in women and young African-Americans. It is estimated that as many as 18 million Americans have sleep apnea.

Early recognition and treatment of sleep apnea is important, as it may be associated with:

What are the different types of sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. There are two types of sleep apnea:

Who is affected by sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea seems to run in some families, suggesting a possible genetic basis. People most likely to have or develop sleep apnea include those who:

Use of alcohol and sleeping pills increases the frequency and duration of breathing pauses in people with sleep apnea.

What are the characteristics of sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is characterized by a number of involuntary breathing pauses or "apneic events" during a single night's sleep. There may be as many as 20 to 30 or more events per hour. These events are almost always accompanied by snoring between apnea episodes (although not everyone who snores has sleep apnea). Sleep apnea may also be characterized by choking sensations. The frequent interruptions of deep, restorative sleep often lead to early morning headaches and excessive daytime sleepiness.

During the apneic event, the person is unable to breathe in oxygen and to exhale carbon dioxide, resulting in low levels of oxygen and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. The reduction in oxygen and increase in carbon dioxide alert the brain to resume breathing and cause an arousal. With each arousal, a signal is sent from the brain to the upper airway muscles to open the airway; breathing is resumed, often with a loud snort or gasp. Frequent arousals, although necessary for breathing to restart, prevent a person from getting enough restorative, deep sleep.

What are the causes of sleep apnea?

Certain mechanical and structural problems in the airway cause the interruptions in breathing during sleep. Apnea occurs:

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

Diagnosis of sleep apnea is not simple because there can be many different causes. Primary care doctors, pulmonologists, neurologists, or other doctors with specialty training in sleep disorders may be involved in making a definitive diagnosis and initiating treatment. Several tests are available for evaluating a person for sleep apnea, including:

Diagnostic tests usually are performed in a sleep center, but new technology may allow some sleep studies to be conducted in the patient's home.

How is sleep apnea treated?

Specific treatment will be determined by your doctor based on:

Medications are generally not effective in the treatment of sleep apnea. Therapy for sleep apnea is specifically designed for each individual patient, and may include the following:

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Online Resources of Respiratory Disorders

 

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