Sleep apnea is a disorder that affects breathing patterns during sleep. The disorder affects men more than women with the incidence being higher among the elderly. The term apnea means a time interval during which breathing stops or gets reduced to a significant degree.
During normal sleep the body relaxes and breathing becomes slower and more rhythmic. However in sleep apnea the normal breathing pattern gets interrupted for a few seconds or even minutes. People with sleep apnea are generally not aware of the condition.
Often the disruption in breathing leads to a partial state of awakening followed by the individual falling asleep again. However the pause in breathing is noticeable and people nearby can help identify the condition.
The immediate symptoms may be in the form of choking or gasping during sleep preceded by loud intermittent snoring.
Other symptoms include
Sleep apnea affects the blood supply to vital organs like the heart and brain. The condition causes a gradual decrease in the oxygen levels in the blood. Health disorders that are associated with sleep apnea are hypertension, heart disease, arrhythmia (irregular heart beats), brain ischemia (stroke), metabolic syndrome, and diabetes.
1. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) occurs when the passage of air gets blocked usually in the upper respiratory tract. This takes place due to the structure of the tract which becomes floppy during sleep. People with obesity related issues and those who smoke are more susceptible to OSA.
2. Central sleep apnea (CSA) occurs when the brain fails to send signals to the respiratory muscles. This results in respiratory activity ceasing for a period of time. The condition has long term consequences as low oxygen levels impair the proper functioning of vital organs like the brain and heart.
3. Mixed or complex sleep apnea occurs due to obstruction as well as lack of breathing effort. Often obstructive sleep apnea if left untreated over the long term can lead to complex sleep apnea.
The condition can occur several times during sleep with differences in the duration. The severity is determined by dividing the number of incidents by the number of hours of sleep. Screening for sleep apnea is usually done using a procedure known as polysomnography in a sleep laboratory. There are several tests to help diagnose sleep apnea.
Treatment for the condition depends on the type of condition and severity. Treatment options include both surgical as well as non surgical procedures.
The treatment encompasses lifestyle changes and use of distinctive methods like Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). Lifestyle changes include limiting alcohol intake, quitting smoking and maintaining weight at a healthy standard.
Other habits include sleeping on the side in a lateral position with the upper body at a slight elevation. This prevents the respiratory tract from collapsing while sleeping. Avoiding alcohol and smoking prevents the respiratory muscles from becoming limp and causing difficulty in breathing.
Surgery is an alternative method of treatment which involves removal of excess tissue from the respiratory tract to facilitate smooth flow of air.
An effective way to treat obstructive sleep apnea is using oral appliances to keep the airways open during sleep. The treatment method is known as “continuous positive airway pressure” (CPAP). The treatment includes use of a CPAP machine which includes a humidifier, hosing and face mask.
The CPAP machine is set at a fixed pressure level to deliver a constant flow of air by way of a face mask. Patients who use CPAP have reported an improvement in their lifestyle quality with better concentration and memory.
[box type="important"]Sleep apnea if left untreated over the long term can lead to sudden death. However with timely diagnosis it ceases to be a chronic condition. Sleep apnea patients also need to be careful before taking any medication which contains sedatives.[/box]