Sleep apnea

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at January 20, 2016
StartDiseasesSleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that affects millions of people. It results in pauses in breathing in the night while sleeping. In the most severe cases, these pauses can last over a minute and occur many times. When these pauses happen, the body does not get the oxygen that it needs.


Definition & Facts

Sleep apnea is also referred to as obstructive sleep apnea, sleep-disordered breathing, or central sleep apnea. The word apnea actually means "cessation of breathing." At its worst, sleep apnea can cause a person to stop breathing hundreds of times in the span of one night. In mild cases, shallow breathing may be the only problem.

Many factors can put a person at risk of developing sleep apnea. Being overweight can have a major impact on a person's ability to breathe well while lying down and could make sleep apnea more likely. Having a medical history of sleep apnea in the family increases the chances of future generations that will develop the condition. Sleep apnea is more common in men and as people age. Anyone with serious health conditions may be more prone to this condition.

Symptoms & Complaints

The patient with sleep apnea may not realize there is a problem, but other members of the household can identify one of the most obvious connections to the disorder: snoring. Snoring that happens on a regular basis could be a telltale sign of sleep apnea, especially if it is loud or there are pauses before snoring resumes. While snoring does not necessarily mean that a person has sleep apnea, it could be a concern if there are other symptoms of the disorder.

Gasping in the middle of the night or making choking sounds also points to sleep apnea. In some cases, a person with sleep apnea may suddenly wake up after gasping for breath. Waking up with a mouth that is incredibly dry could be a result of gasping for air throughout the night. A sore throat each morning is a typical symptom.

Being tired all of the time is a clue that there is something wrong. Falling asleep at the wheel or during quiet times could be traced to a sleep disorder. Sleep apnea can make it hard to focus during the day and make a person irritable for no apparent reason. Headaches first thing in the morning are a common sign as well.


Sleep apnea can be caused by many different factors. It revolves around the muscles of the throat, the tissues in the mouth, the way the head or neck is formed, and the signals that are sent by the brain to the body to ensure breathing happens the way that it should.

For those who are overweight, excess fat can place pressure on the airway at night, causing a blockage of airflow. Anyone who has large tonsils or a larger tongue may experience problems with breathing at night. Sleep apnea affects those who have throat muscles that become too relaxed during sleep.

In some cases, a person may be born with a smaller neck or head which makes it more difficult to keep the airways clear at night. Sleep apnea can also be caused by a malfunction with the nervous system when the brain fails to send the signal to breathe properly at night.

Diagnosis & Tests

There are several ways that doctors can diagnose sleep apnea. Physicians will look at a person's health history and consider if sleep apnea runs in the family. They may begin with a physical exam, looking for obvious indicators of a sleep disorder. During an examination, the doctor will be looking for any problems with the throat, nose, or mouth. The soft palate, tonsils, and a deviated septum could be to blame for an obstruction of the airways.

Once a physician has performed an initial evaluation, the next step will be a visit to a sleep specialist. Sleep specialists often conduct sleep studies in which patients stay overnight. Patients of sleep apnea are closely monitored during the night. This allows sleep specialists the opportunity to observe how often a person experiences difficulty with breathing and how long pauses in breathing last during each episode.

Additional diagnostic tools include wearing monitors at home that keep track of a person's heart rate, how much oxygen is contained in the blood, chest movements, and how freely air moves through the nose. Asking family members to keep a journal of snoring or pauses in breathing can provide a helpful source of information. Video taping a person experiencing problems with breathing offers many insights for doctors as well.

Treatment & Therapy

One of the first steps in treating sleep apnea is making changes in lifestyle for many patients of the disorder. It is recommended to stop smoking and avoid allergens that may cause difficulties with breathing. Weight loss is key for anyone who is excessively overweight. Regular exercise is advised to help in weight loss and to strengthen the cardiovascular system. Making simple adjustments, such as sleeping on one's side, can be helpful in keeping the airways clear at night. Alcohol should be avoided before bed because it relaxes the muscles of the throat.

If changes in lifestyle are not enough, there are other measures that a patient of sleep apnea can take. Nasal strips can aid a person with sleep apnea by keeping the nasal passages open. A mouth guard can be worn at night that will keep the tongue in the proper position, avoiding a blockage of the airways. A sleep device, such as the CPAP machine can be worn at night to maintain a steady flow of oxygen while sleeping. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove excess tissue.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

The best way to prevent sleep apnea is to live a healthy lifestyle. Avoiding excessive use of alcohol and smoking will reduce the risk of developing the disorder. Eating a balanced diet and remaining active can keep the body strong while maintaining an ideal weight. Managing any health conditions can also help a person to avoid sleep apnea.