Sleep Apnea (General)

What is a Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a chronic disorder where a sleeping person’s breath becomes shallow or stops completely. These breathing pauses can last only a couple of seconds, but some people stop breathing for more than a minute. “Sleep apnea” is a general term for many different kinds of breathing impairments, including central sleep apnea, drug-induced apnea, infant sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea, high-altitude periodic breathing, etc.

Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain isn’t able to send the correct signals to muscles that control breathing. A type of central sleep apnea is Cheyne-Stokes-caused apnea, which occurs when a person develops an abnormal breathing pattern that gets faster and deeper. A Cheyne-Stokes breathing pattern is often due to stresses that exacerbate a neurological disease or congestive heart failure. Other conditions related to central sleep apnea include encephalitis, Parkinson’s disease, strokes, and the like.

Drug-induced sleep apnea can occur when a person takes painkillers, like opioids, or other powerful drugs that affect breathing patterns while sleeping. Infant sleep apnea is often seen in premature babies. It is often caused by a secondary medical condition or because there is a developmental problem.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a very common kind of apnea, and it happens when the muscles in the throat relax too much and block the airway. Those who are overweight—especially those who carry more fat in the abdomen—are more prone to this kind sleep apnea. As a person ages, the risk for this kind of sleep apnea can increase since muscles in the throat naturally lose tone over time. However, sometimes children present this type of condition if they have overly large tonsils.

Mountaineers and similar hobbyists are those likely to develop high-altitude periodic breathing. Because it is difficult to breathe in higher altitudes and because it is difficult to get good sleep in inclement weather, unrefreshing sleep and shallow breathing can both easily occur.

Lastly, those with naturally small airways, those with a family history of sleep apnea, or those who smoke or drink too much alcohol are at a higher risk for developing a sleep apnea.

What are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

The main symptoms of sleep apnea include loud snoring and periods of gasping or snorting noises after a patient stops breathing. However, sleep apnea can be hard to catch unless the person with the condition has a family member, partner, or roommate who actually hears them snoring or gasping for air. And even if a person snores, that may not necessarily mean they have sleep apnea.

If a person doesn’t know whether or not they snore, however, there are other signs to look for. For instance, daytime sleepiness and fatigue are common since a person may have interrupted sleep. Concentration issues, memory issues, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and irritability are common symptoms as well. Complications of sleep apnea include heart disease, high blood pressure, and the like.

Sleep Apnea Causes

The most common causes triggering sleep apnea are health issues; some are known, while others could be a wakeup call. Countless individuals have a lack of awareness, or a hesitation about seeking advice when experiencing troubled sleep.

Post-traumatic stress disorder can interrupt your sleeping pattern – this is a mental health condition caused by reliving a terrifying experience through dreams, and for some it heightens anxiety, keeping them awake.

There are also physical conditions that cause sleep apnea. Heart failure or ongoing heart problems cause physical fatigue. The problem with this condition it also causes shortness in breathing, interfering with the quality of your sleep and health.

Although hormonal imbalances may not be directly related to sleep apnea, they can keep you awake. Thyroid diseases and menopause are two hormonal conditions that interfere with our bodily functions, affecting our sleeping patterns.

How is Sleep Apnea Treated?

The treatment will depend on which kind of sleep apnea a person has. For instance, if a person is taking medications with side effects or has has a secondary condition, then a change in medication or surgery to fix the condition may be needed for sleep apnea to subside. If a person has obstructive sleep apnea, the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine may be used. CPAP devices use a mild air pressure that forces the airway open. Dental appliances can also benefit some patients. Bariatric surgery, tongue reduction surgery, tracheostomy, and the like can improve a person’s sleep apnea. Lastly, lifestyle changes, like losing weight or quitting smoking, can be beneficial and reduce symptoms.

Sleep Apnea Prevention

Knowing your own body’s health and tolerance for sleeping well is the best prevention. Talk to your doctor to determine the cause of your sleep apnea; it may be an underlying problem related to excessive consumption of alcohol, or medications like sleeping pills or sedatives.

Some of our lifestyle habits may be enjoyable while we’re awake, but most cause a shortness in breathing when we’re sleeping. For example, you should try and stop smoking: the nicotine in tobacco causes swelling in the upper airways, and as they close you stop breathing. Daily life changes to your routines help with sleep: no coffee before bedtime, go to bed at the same time each night and keep a healthy weight.

Also, try adjusting your sleeping position to prevent sleep apnea; some find sleeping on their side helps to keep regular breathing patterns throughout the night. Others prefer using sleep pillows designed to support the head and neck, keeping the air passages open for easy breathing and uninterrupted sleep.

Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
November 09, 2017