Sleep Apnea: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment
Sleep Apnea affects countless numbers of people, many of whom do not realize they have it. Apnea is a medical term for a temporary cessation of breathing. In many cases of sleep apnea, breathing ceases for ten or twenty seconds. This may occur dozens of time throughout one night’s sleep. When breathing recommences, it is often with a loud snoring or choking sound.
The most common daytime symptom of these constant interruptions in breathing is fatigue. Headaches are another common symptom, as well as memory or learning issues, inability to concentrate, irritability, depression, and a dry mouth upon waking.1 The drowsiness and tendency to easily fall asleep associated with sleep apnea may have dire consequences, including traffic accidents and industrial injuries.
Even children are susceptible to sleep apnea. As with adults, many children with sleep apnea are overweight.2 Children with sleep apnea may experience academic problems, hostility, and hyperactivity.3 Many children with sleep apnea problems also are daytime “mouth breathers.”4 Childhood sleep apnea occurs most often between the ages of two and six, and may be due to enlarged tonsils and adenoids.5 Left untreated, sleep apnea in children may lead to heart issues, “failure to thrive,” and high blood pressure.6
What actually happens during sleep apnea episodes takes place in the throat. Muscles there support the soft palate, the uvula, the tonsils, and the tongue. Relaxing those muscles causes the airways to narrow, making it difficult to take in an adequate breath, and thus enough oxygen. The brain is hardwired to awaken the body when this happens, although the actual awakening it is usually not long enough to remember once morning comes.7
In adults, the most common cause of obstructive sleep apnea is excess weight. In fact, approximately 50% of people with sleep apnea are overweight.8 Men experience sleep apnea more than women do, and it seems to run in families.9 Additionally, as with so many respiratory issues, smoking is a risk factor.
Some individuals have sleep apnea due to very different causes. Central sleep apnea is a far less common diagnosis. People with this disease tend to recall waking up during the night.11 With central sleep apnea, the brain fails to send signals to the body’s breathing muscles. The result is difficulty falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, or awakening with a shortness of breath. Daytime symptoms, however, are similar to those of obstructive sleep apnea, including fatigue. At night, central sleep apnea also causes snoring.12
Treating sleep apnea involves several options. There are certain things individuals can do on their own to alleviate sleep apnea symptoms. Losing weight, avoiding alcohol, and quitting smoking all help. Finding the right sleeping position (usually on the side) helps, as does using nasal sprays and allergy medicines.13 Some find relief by using oral appliances or mouthpieces that position the mouth, tongue, and/or jaw for better air passage. Many use CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, machines. CPAPs use a mask that covers the mouth and nose and blows air into the throat. The pressure from that air helps keep airways open.14
Treatment of sleep apnea is very important as it is linked to high blood pressure and heart disease.15 Furthermore, proper treatment has the potential to substantially improve quality of life for sleep apnea sufferers.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. For more information about sleep apnea, talk to your doctor or primary care provider.
Page last updated: October 14, 2018