Sleep apnea is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition in which an individual repeatedly stops breathing while he or she sleeps. The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea, caused by a blockage of the airway. This blockage could be excess tissue in the nasal passages or behind the tongue in the oral pharynx and hypopharynx of the airway.
There are a number of potential causes. Sleep apnea is usually caused by mechanical and structural problems in the airway that interrupt breathing while you sleep. It may also occur when the throat and tongue muscles relax during sleep, blocking the airway. In obese individuals, sleep apnea may be caused by narrowing of the airway by excess tissue in the throat and neck.
Virtually anyone can develop sleep apnea. It’s estimated that over 15 million Americans suffer from this condition. It is found more often in men than women. Individuals who snore loudly and are overweight, or have high blood pressure, are at the highest risk. Some studies suggest hereditary may also be a factor.
Snoring occurs when your throat and tongue muscles relax to the point where the airway is narrowed and partially obstructed. As the air passes through, the structures in the throat vibrate and produce snoring. Although snoring is a strong indication of sleep apnea, the two don’t always go together.
During an “apneic event,” your body experiences an increased amount of carbon dioxide and a decrease in oxygen. This alerts the brain to open the airways, usually accompanied by a snort or gasp, and a short rise out of sleep that you may not even be aware of. These arousals can prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. Many patients awaken 40–60 times an hour due to apnea but have no idea when they wake in the morning.
The number one effect of sleep apnea is a lack of quality sleep. This can lead to simple problems such as drowsiness during the day or trouble concentrating, and to more serious problems such as stroke, heart disease, memory loss, depression, or suicide.
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