Sleep apnea literally means sleeping without breath. The condition is as common as adult diabetes and affects more than 12 million Americans. Three types of apnea include central, obstructive and mixed. A person who suffers from sleep apnea will repeatedly cease breathing during their sleep, rousing briefly to start breathing again. This pattern of difficulty breathing leads to lower oxygen in the blood, a higher amount of carbon dioxide, fragmented sleep and contributes to other health issues including headaches, obesity and more.
Central Sleep Apnea Versus Obstructive Sleep Apnea
In central sleep apnea, it is the brain that fails to send the signal to the muscles to breathe whereas in obstructive sleep apnea, the tissue at the rear of the throat falls closed, preventing breathing from occurring. In cases where a person suffers from mixed sleep apnea they experience a mixture of the two different types. Overweight men, over the age of 40 are at the highest risk for sleep apnea, but it can affect anyone including children. In children, the condition may be treated by removing the tonsils and adenoids. Many who suffer from sleep apnea go undiagnosed due to a lack of awareness by many healthcare professionals and general knowledge with regard to the sleep disorder.
Obstructive sleep apnea is related to enlarged tissue in the throat area. The enlarged area of soft tissue collapses, blocking the passage of air through the throat. Some physicians suggest that losing weight may alleviate some of the issues associated with too much tissue and that surgery to remove excess tissue may be an option if more non-invasive methods are unsuccessful in treating sleep apnea.
Central sleep apnea is distinct because it is neurologically based. The brain is failing to send the correct messages to the muscles that control a person’s breathing. CSA may be related to stroke, brain injury, encephalitis, neurological diseases (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s), cervical spine damage or complications from surgery.
Dangers of Untreated Sleep Apnea
Untreated sleep apnea leads to a series of health issues including (but not limited to) high blood pressure, memory problems, impotency, headaches and weight gain. Headaches associated with apnea typically occur upon waking and are associated with the oxygen deprivation suffered during sleep.
Symptoms of Untreated Sleep Apnea
Parents and partners are often the ones who notice the dramatic symptoms associated with sleep apnea first. The most obnoxious symptom associated with the sleep disorder is loud, pronounced snoring interspersed with gasping for air. When the throat collapses during an episode, the body will go without air for a second or two until it rouses and forces the throat open to breath. This gasping sound increases the level of snoring. Illness, such as a head cold or flu, can increase the frequency of episodes.
A person may suffer from dozens of episodes a night, but only remember waking once or twice, even though their natural sleep patterns and rhythms are disturbed. Upon waking in the morning, a person with sleep apnea will often feel tired and disoriented. They will have a headache and a sore throat. It may take them longer than usual to get started on their day and the feeling of drowsiness will persist through the daylight hours. This happens because the body goes through five stages of sleep. The body needs those five different stages, but sleep apnea episodes will reduce their duration, preventing the deeper stages of sleep because of constant arousal to breathe.
A person with sleep apnea never gets a solid night’s rest and will begin to show symptoms of sleep deprivation. In some cases, where the apnea goes untreated for years at a time, the constant sleep deprivation can impair job performance, social interactions, weight loss efforts and more.
Getting Help For Sleep Apnea
While sleep apnea can be treated, knowing whether the problem is physical (obstructive) or neurological (central) or a combination (mixed) can help a physician diagnose and treat the root causes as well as the actual apnea. If you or someone you care about suspect that you are suffering from sleep apnea, you should see your physician for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.