What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea (AP-ne-ah) is defined as episodes of apneas (not breathing) which last more than 10 seconds and that occur during sleep. These episodes may occur hundreds of times per night, and can lead to transient awakenings and fragmented sleep. During these apneic events, the individual’s oxygen level can fall to dangerously low levels (hypoxemia) and may result in cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), which can at times be fatal. Also individuals with obstructive sleep apnea are far more prone to heart attacks and strokes.
Untreated obstructive sleep apnea results in poor sleep quality that makes you feel tired during the day. Obstructive sleep apnea is one of the leading causes of excessive daytime sleepiness.
Sleep apnea is considered to be the most under diagnosed sleep disorder in the country. Doctors usually can’t detect the condition during routine office visits, and there are no blood tests to confirm the condition.
Most people who have sleep apnea don’t know they have it because it only occurs during sleep. A family member and/or bed partner will likely be the first to notice the signs of sleep apnea (loud snoring, gasping for breath, and periods of interrupted breathing).
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. This means that an individual’s airway has collapsed or is blocked during sleep causing shallow breathing, breathing pauses, and loud gasping sounds.
When you try to breathe, any air that squeezes past the blockage can cause loud snoring. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in people who are overweight, but it can affect anyone of any size. For example, small children may have enlarged tonsils or adenoids which can lead to obstructive sleep apnea.
The animation at the side shows how obstructive sleep apnea occurs. Click the “start” button to play the animation. Visual and audio are provided with each frame. Use the buttons in the lower right corner to pause, restart, or replay the animation, or use the scroll bar below the buttons to move through the frames.
Untreated sleep apnea can:
- Increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity, and diabetes
- Increase the risk of, or worsen, heart failure
- Make arrhythmias (ah-RITH-me-ahs), or irregular heartbeats, more likely
- Increase the chance of having work-related or driving accidents
Obstructive Sleep Apnea occurs in patients with the following health conditions:
- Diabetes – it is estimated that 40% of men who have type II diabetes have obstructive sleep apnea.
- High blood pressure – it is estimated that 50% of long term obstructive sleep apnea sufferers have high blood pressure.
- Depression – studies have found that depressed people are five times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than non depressed people.
- Obesity – sleep apnea is strongly associated with obesity (even moderate obesity).
- Heart disease – in the United States it is estimated that nearly 40,000 cardiovascular deaths are thought to be related to obstructive sleep apnea each year.
- Auto Accidents – it is estimated that obstructive sleep apnea sufferers are six times more likely to be involved in a fatal car accidents.
National Heart Lung and Blood Institute
Sleep Apnea Awareness
Sleep Apnea Symptoms and Warning Signs
The symptoms of sleep apnea may include:
- daytime fatigue and sleepiness,
- poor concentration and attention,
- memory problems,
- and difficulty performing work duties.
Sleep apnea may lead to frequent awakening of the bed partner resulting in insomnia and its associated symptoms. Obstructive Sleep Apnea can also be associated with long-term complications if not diagnosed and treated properly. Some of these complications may include:
- high blood pressure (hypertension),
- ischemic heart disease (poor blood flow to the heart),
- heart attack,
- heart failure,
- irregular heart rate,
- pulmonary hypertension (elevation of blood pressure in the blood vessels of the lungs),
- or even death.