Sleep medicine is a relatively new speciality in the medical community. The research and study of sleep patterns and their effect on overall health has identified many sleep disorders, including sleep disordered breathing conditions.
Apnea literally means “without breath.” It occurs when there in an interruption to airflow during normal breathing.
As there are different causes of apnea and levels of severity, the first steps toward finding effective treatment of sleep apnea are a sleep apnea evaluation and a medically supported diagnosis to find the underlying cause of the apnea. Snoring is often associated with, but not limited to, sleep apnea.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Also called OSA, obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the upper airway becomes partially or completely blocked during sleep. Although the muscles of the upper throat that hold the airway open should continue to do so during sleep, they sometimes relax and block the upper airway. The tongue can also relax, moving to the back of the throat and blocking the airway. The brain sends a signal to the respiratory muscles to breathe, but because of the airway blockage, breath is not possible. OSA happens in both sexes and at all ages; however, it is more common in men. Those most likely to have OSA experience loud snoring, are overweight, or have high blood pressure. There may also be a physical abnormality in the upper airway, nose, or throat that causes the airway to be blocked.
Central Sleep Apnea
Also called CSA, central sleep apnea occurs when there is a lack of communication between the brain and the muscles that control the functions of inhaling and exhaling. As the signals are not sent from the brain, the muscles don’t respond. Central sleep apnea is commonly associated with other medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, degenerative conditions of the spine, or conditions that affect the brain stem. The symptoms of central sleep apnea vary according to other underlying conditions, but may include difficulty swallowing, or experiencing weakness or numbness in the body. An in-depth sleep test called a polysomnogram can help to diagnose this sleep disorder.
Complex Sleep Apnea
Also called mixed sleep apnea, this condition has a combination of neurological causes as in central sleep apnea, and the physical obstruction of the upper airway as in obstructive sleep apnea. An in-depth sleep test called a polysomgram can help diagnose this sleep disorder.
The severity of sleep apnea is determined by how frequently the apneas occur and how low the blood oxygen levels fall. These are observed by undergoing a sleep test which measures the amount of oxygen in your blood, snoring, and breathing patterns during sleep. An in-depth sleep test called a polysomnogram also monitors EEG (brain waves), oxygen levels, snoring, ECG, movements during sleep, and various other signals.
Apneas typically last from 10 to 60 seconds and can occur at varying times throughout the night. In mild cases, apneas can occur every 10 minutes or so while severe cases can experience apneas every minute or so. Symptoms of sleep apnea—like gasping for breath, loud snoring, or thrashing—are caused by a person’s brain instinctively trying to wake them to restore breathing. This constant interruption fragments the sleep, and does not allow the body to experience restorative sleep.
Although sleep disordered breathing conditions can’t be cured, they can be effectively managed to minimize the symptoms of sleep apnea and reduce the long-term health risks associated with untreated conditions, which include high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes.