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Sleep Apnea

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which your breathing stops and starts many times during sleep. There are two types of sleep apnea:
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): A condition in which the windpipe (trachea) gets blocked, and you may begin to snore. This is the most common form of the disorder. 
Central sleep apnea (CSA): A condition in which the breathing stops because your brain does not send appropriate signals to the muscles that control breathing. 
Most people with OSA are unaware of their problem because they go on snoring and a slight change in position can help them resume breathing normally, whereas in CSA, the person normally wakes up with a gasp or choking feeling and they are conscious at this time.
It is important to note that not everyone who snores suffers from sleep apnea, and people who suffer from sleep apnea don't always snore. It is a potentially serious condition but it is treatable.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

It can be difficult for someone with sleep apnea to detect their own problem as most of the symptoms of the disorder occur while sleeping. However, some of the common signs one can look out for are:
  • Daytime sleepiness: If you have been feeling excessively sleepy during the day for a considerable period of time, despite having had the opportunity for a good night's sleep, you may be suffering from troubled breathing during your sleep that you are unaware of. 
  • Gasping and choking during sleep: You may be prone to waking up at night with a shortness of breath, or people tell you that you wake up with gasping or choking sounds.
  • Morning headaches, dry mouth: You wake up regularly with headaches, dryness in the mouth or a sore throat; this may indicate that your breathing is interrupted while sleeping.
  • Loud snoring: People have told you that you snore loudly on a regular basis.
  • Growing irritable and moody: You have been growing noticeably irritable and moody which could be due to disturbed sleep.
If you have noticed someone snoring loudly on a regular basis, or waking with gasping or choking sounds, you should talk to them about sleep apnea and suggest that they seek professional help.

What causes sleep apnea?

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea or OSA. OSA occurs when the muscles of the upper airway relax and the tongue falls back limiting the amount of air you can inhale. In most cases, this causes a person to snore as the tissue at the back of your throat begins to vibrate due to the excess force. It may also cause the person to gasp or choke causing them to wake up briefly. OSA can occur in people who have excess fat in their necks, which exerts pressure on the airway; smokers are also prone to OSA.
Other factors that can cause OSA are high blood pressure, being overweight and old age.
Central sleep apnea is far less common than OSA. Central sleep apnea or CSA may occur in old age, although the main causes of CSA are serious conditions such as heart failure, stroke and some neurological diseases. People with CSA are more likely to be aware of their sleeping problem because they wake up completely when their breathing stops.

Getting treatment for sleep apnea

For minor cases of sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes such as losing weight or quitting smoking and alcohol. For people who primarily face this problem while sleeping on their backs, they may be prescribed positional therapy where they are provided means to ensure that they sleep on their side. For more serious cases of sleep apnea, some of the treatments include:
  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP): In this treatment, the person is given a mask that uses a constant air stream to gently keep the airways open. This allows you to breathe comfortably through the night although you may take some time to get used to wearing the mask.
  • Oral appliances: Sometimes you may be prescribed an oral appliance which resembles dental retainers. The function of this appliance is to hold your tongue in place while also keeping your jaw forward.
  • Surgery: Surgical removal or reduction of the tissue at the back of your throat can ensure that it does not block your airway while sleeping. In some cases, the jaw may be repositioned to make sure there is enough space behind the tongue for easier breathing.

Caring for someone with sleep apnea

People suffering from sleep apnea are often unaware of the fact that they have a problem breathing during their sleep. It is the family that usually notices the loud snoring and gasping during sleep, or the coworkers who notice the sleepiness during work. As a caregiver you should try and talk to the person about seeking professional help. A person suffering from sleep apnea may grow irritable and moody so it is important that you remain patient and make sure they stick to the treatment plan.

Coping with sleep apnea

Sleep apnea can be a potentially serious problem and can affect your productivity in the long run. You can make some changes to your lifestyle, which can help relieve the stress. Developing a healthy exercise routine and losing weight (if you are overweight) can help reduce OSA. It would be advisable to quit smoking and alcohol. You should try sleeping on your side to avoid your tongue rolling back and blocking your upper airway. These changes are all secondary, and it is of utmost importance that you first consult a doctor regarding your problem.