What is Sleep Apnea?
Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep. The word "apnea" literally means "without breath." Apnea is defined as a cessation of breath that lasts at least ten seconds. Obstructive apneas occur when the muscles in the back of the throat are not able to keep the throat open, despite efforts to breathe. This causes blockages in the airway and breathing interruptions, or apneas. Obstructive apneas can result in two problems: fragmented sleep and lowered levels of oxygen in the blood. The combination of sleep disturbance and oxygen starvation can result in multiple problems, including automobile accidents, hypertension, heart disease, and mood and memory problems. Sleep apnea can be life-threatening and you should consult your doctor immediately if you feel you may suffer from it.
Although the connection between sleep apnea and heart disease is not entirely clear, we know that people with cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure, heart attack, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrythmia and stroke have a high prevalence of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea also results in excessive daytime sleepiness that increases the likelihood of accidents, hinders productivity and makes relationships more difficult.
More than 18 million American adults have sleep apnea. It is very difficult at present to estimate the prevalence of childhood OSA because of widely varying monitoring techniques, but a minimum prevalence of 2 to 3% is likely, with prevalence as high as 10 to 20% in habitually snoring children. OSA occurs in all age groups and both sexes, but there are a number of factors that increase risk, including having a small upper airway (or large tongue, tonsils or uvula), being overweight, having a recessed chin, small jaw or a large overbite, a large neck size (17 inches or greater in a man, or 16 inches or greater in a woman), smoking and alcohol use, being age 40 or older, and ethnicity (African-Americans, Pacific-Islanders and Hispanics). Also, OSA seems to run in some families, suggesting a possible genetic basis.
Chronic snoring is a strong indicator of sleep apnea and should be evaluated by a health professional. Since people with sleep apnea tend to be sleep deprived, they may suffer from sleeplessness and a wide range of other symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, depression, irritability, sexual dysfunction, learning and memory difficulties, and falling asleep while at work, on the phone, or driving. Left untreated, symptoms of sleep apnea can include disturbed sleep, excessive sleepiness during the day, high blood pressure, heart attack, congestive heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia, stroke or depression.