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Sleep disordered breathing or sleep apnea

Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a disorder with serious health consequences in which breathing during sleep is interrupted briefly and repeatedly.

The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) estimates that 18 million Americans have sleep apnea. Many of these people haven't been diagnosed with the condition.

Here's what you need to know about sleep apnea and its damaging effects, as well as information about who is at risk and when to seek medical attention.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

The most common form of sleep apnea is called obstructive sleep apnea. With obstructive sleep apnea, the muscles in the back of the throat relax during sleep allowing the airway to collapse and partially or completely cut off the flow of air. Breathing stops for 10 seconds or more. Desperate for oxygen, the brain awakens the sleeper just enough so that the airway muscles tighten and breathing is restored, often with a loud gasp or snort. Although sleep apnea sufferers may never realize it, this cycle repeats throughout the night.

Central Sleep Apnea

Another less common form of sleep apnea is called central sleep apnea. With central sleep apnea, brief breathing disruptions occur when the brain fails to send the right signal to the muscles that control breathing. Typically, central sleep apnea doesn't cause the snoring associated with obstructive sleep apnea. Central Sleep Apnea may occur in association with congestive heart failure or in patients taking opiate pain medications.

Effects of sleep apnea

According to the NSF and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the frequent awakenings caused by sleep apnea not only result in excessive sleepiness but can lead to a range of significant health problems, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Heart attacks
  • Stroke

People who have untreated sleep apnea may fall asleep at inappropriate—and dangerous—times, such as while driving, according to NINDS.

Anyone (including children) can get sleep apnea, but there are certain factors that increase a person's risk. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the NSF, these include:

  • Weight. Being overweight increases the risk of sleep apnea.
  • Lifestyle. Smoking, drinking alcohol and the use of sedatives can increase the risk and severity of sleep apnea.
  • Age. The risk increases as you get older.
  • Sex. Men are more likely than women to experience sleep apnea.
  • Anatomy. People with smaller airways in their nose, mouth or throat, or who have a thicker neck, are at greater risk for sleep apnea.
  • Family history. Sleep apnea risk is also higher among those with a family history of the condition.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

People can have sleep apnea without knowing it, so it's important to be aware of the following sleep apnea symptoms:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness, which can lead to falling asleep unexpectedly
  • Snoring
  • Morning headaches
  • Dry mouth or sore throat in the morning
  • Mood or personality changes
  • Difficulty with mental tasks like learning, concentrating and remembering
  • Sexual dysfunction

Treatment for sleep apnea

If you are experiencing the symptoms mentioned above, you should see your primary care provider. Your primary care provider may then refer you to see Dr. Scott Johnson is the Sleep Disorders Clinic at Crossing Rivers Health Center for Specialty Care.

A sleep study may be used to assist with the diagnosis and treatment, which can be performed right here at Crossing Rivers Health. Learn more about sleep studies and take a virtual tour of our sleep lab below.

The most common and highly effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP). A CPAP is a mask that fits over the nose and/or mouth and gently blows air into the airway to help keep it open during sleep.

CPAP supplies are available through Crossing Rivers Health Home Medical Equipment Retail Store, located within the Medical Center.

Tired of not getting a good night's sleep?

Make an appointment with a primary care provider and ask for a referral to Dr. Scott Johnson at Crossing Rivers Health Center for Specialty Care.

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