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What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep Disorder Disrupts Breathing, Leads to Important Consequences

By

Updated June 13, 2014

What Is Sleep Apnea?
Herbert Gehr / Getty Images

Defining the Disorder

Sleep apnea is a chronic disorder in which one repeatedly stops breathing during the night. Apnea literally means "no breath." These events last 10 seconds or longer, and may occur hundreds of times during a night. Someone with sleep apnea may be aware of snorting, gasping, or waking up short of breath. However, because they are asleep, many may not realize anything is happening at all.

What Happens During Apnea?

During apnea events, there is a drop in blood oxygen levels, an increase in heart rate, a burst of stress hormone (called cortisol), and disrupted sleep when the body awakens slightly so that breathing will resume, sometimes with a gasp.

What Are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

There are many common symptoms of sleep apnea, some of which are unexpected. These may include:

  • Loud, chronic snoring
  • Choking or gasping during sleep
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Morning headaches
  • Memory or learning problems
  • Feeling irritable
  • Poor concentration
  • Changes in mood, including depression
  • Dry throat or mouth upon awakening

What Are the Causes of Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea occurs when the upper airway is obstructed or collapses for a number of reasons. Excessive weight and too much tissue in the upper airway are major causes. Loss of muscle tone due to aging, or during the muscle relaxation found in dream or REM sleep, may contribute. It may occur more commonly when someone sleeps on their back or after alcohol use. Additionally, apnea may sometimes occur because the brain forgets to stimulate breathing.

The Important Consequences of Sleep Apnea

This disorder can have major health consequences and can be life threatening. Excessive daytime sleepiness may cause you to fall asleep while driving. Moreover, those affected may have increased risk of:

How Is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

Sleep apnea is diagnosed with an overnight study (called a polysomnogram) in a sleep laboratory, followed by the determination of the best treatment option by a physician.

Sources:

American Sleep Apnea Association.

Collop MD, Nancy. "The effect of obstructive sleep apnea on chronic medical disorders." Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. 2007 74:1.

NIH News In Health

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

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