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Profile on Sleep Apnea


Updated August 09, 2010

What is Sleep Apnea?

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, but may not realize it 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 hormones, and disrupted sleep when the body awakens slightly so that breathing will resume, sometimes with a gasp.

What Are the Symptoms?

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?

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 sleep, may contribute. Additionally, apnea may sometimes occur because the brain forgets to stimulate breathing.

The Important Consequences

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:

  • Stroke or transient ischemic attacks
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Heart failure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Heartburn and reflux
  • Diabetes
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Depression
  • Sudden death

How is it 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.


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