Five signs you may have sleep apnea - teaser

Sleep apnea

Apnea is a Greek word meaning "want of breath." Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in which you stop breathing while asleep. Your airway narrows or collapses during breathing, blocking air flow. When this happens, your lungs can't take in oxygen or breathe out carbon dioxide. This can last 10 seconds or longer.

Your brain responds to the falling oxygen levels by waking you enough to tighten the upper airway muscles and open your airway. You may snort or gasp and continue trying to breathe. This can happen more than 100 times per hour each night.

There are two types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when air cannot flow into or out of your nose or mouth. This is the most common type of sleep apnea.
  • Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain doesn't send the right signals to your breathing muscles.

About 18 million Americans have sleep apnea. Studies show it is more common in men than in women. About 2 percent of women and 4 percent of men older than age 50 have sleep apnea.

Causes of sleep apnea include:

  • having a small jaw, or large tongue, tonsils or adenoids
  • having throat muscles and a tongue that relax more than normal
  • taking alcohol, sleeping pills or other medicine before bedtime (This can slow your breathing and can cause sleep apnea to occur more often.)
  • being overweight

The main symptoms of sleep apnea are:

  • loud snoring
  • choking or gasping during sleep
  • daytime sleepiness (even while driving or working).

Other symptoms include:

  • morning headaches
  • memory or learning problems
  • irritability
  • inability to concentrate
  • mood swings or personality changes
  • dry throat in the morning

You may have a few or many of these symptoms. Although these symptoms occur in sleep apnea, they may indicate a medical problem other than sleep apnea. Your doctor can help you sort it out.

If sleep apnea is not treated, it can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, impotence, memory loss and even death (because of accidents while working or driving).

To help diagnose sleep apnea, your health care provider may:

  • ask you about your medical history
  • ask questions about how you sleep and feel during the day
  • check your mouth, nose and throat for obstruction
  • have you take a sleep study (polysomnography) or home sleep apnea test. Depending on the test, staff will monitor some or all of the following: the stages of your sleep, brain activity, eye movement, muscle activity, breathing, heart rate, and more. Treatment is based on your symptoms and the results of your test.

Treatment for sleep apnea is based on the results of your sleep study and your medical/sleep history. Treatment may include:

  • using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine while sleeping (This machine blows air into a mask you wear to keep your airway open.)
  • losing weight if you are overweight
  • talking with your health care provider about any prescription medicines you take (Medicines for headaches, anxiety and other problems may affect your sleep and breathing.)
  • sleeping on your side, rather than your back
  • wearing a mouthpiece (oral appliance) while sleeping (This will adjust your lower jaw and tongue forward, opening the space in the back of the throat.)
  • having surgery to enlarge your airway
  • implanting a device that stimulates the muscles of your throat to open while you sleep

You and your health care provider will decide on the best treatment plan for you.

Proper weight control, exercise and regular sleeping habits will promote general good health, and may help prevent sleep apnea.

Allina Health Home Oxygen & Medical Equipment

woman sits up in bed and glares and snoring husband who needs sleep apnea treatment

If you need a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine to help you sleep well, we'll not only deliver the equipment you need, we'll show you how to use and maintain it.

Reviewed By: Dr. Michael Schmitz, PsyD, LP, CBSM, Abbott Northwestern Hospital; Andrew Stiehm, MD, Allina Health clinics
First Published: 05/01/2009
Last Reviewed: 03/22/2016