Sleep Apnea | Sleep Disorders | Loyola Medicine

Sleep Apnea

Overview and Facts about Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a disorder that affects people when they are sleeping. With this problem, people stop and start breathing repeatedly throughout the night. This prevents people from sleeping as well as they should, causing a number of health problems.

There are three main kinds of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea: this is the most common form and involves the throat muscles relaxing too much, which constricts the airway
  • Central sleep apnea: this happens when the brain can’t send the right signals to the breathing muscles, which causes brief pauses in breathing during sleep
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome: this is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea

Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Many people don’t realize they have sleep apnea because a number of the signs occur when they are sleeping. For example, you might:

  • Gasp for air while sleeping
  • Snore loudly
  • Stop breathing during your sleep

Some symptoms you might be able to notice during the day include:

  • Daytime fatigue
  • Dry mouth
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Problems paying attention

Over time, sleep apnea can also increase your risk for kidney disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and asthma.

Causes and Risk Factors of Sleep Apnea

Most people with sleep apnea have obstructive sleep apnea, which is caused when the muscles of the throat relax too much during sleep. This causes the airway to collapse, making it hard for air to get through. Your body will realize you aren’t breathing and shock you awake so your airway opens.

There are a number of risk factors for sleep apnea. These include:

  • Being male
  • Being older
  • Being overweight
  • Having a family history of sleep apnea
  • Having a thicker neck
  • Having long-term nasal congestion
  • Smoking

Tests and Diagnosis of Sleep Apnea

Often, sleep diagnosis cannot be diagnosed by your primary care physician. Rather, you’ll need to go to a pulmonology and critical care specialist that focuses on sleep disorders. You might have to stay overnight at a facility so a sleep specialist can monitor you while you sleep. This is called a nocturnal polysomnography.

If you don’t want to have a sleep study done away from home, your doctor may be able to provide you with a home sleep test. This is less intense than a nocturnal polysomnography but can still provide enough evidence for a sleep apnea diagnosis.

Treatment and Care for Sleep Apnea

If your sleep apnea is mild, your doctor probably will just ask you to make some lifestyle changes to see if they help first. This might include losing weight, quitting smoking, and taking decongestants to clear up your nasal congestion.

However, if your symptoms are affecting your life, the best treatment is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. This device is a mask you wear over your face while sleeping to help keep your airway open. If you don’t want to wear this device, you might be given an oral appliance that help keeps your throat open.