Breathing interruptions during sleep can be serious.

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common disorder that causes your breathing to stop or be very shallow during sleep. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes, and they may occur 30 times or more per hour.

The most common type is obstructive sleep apnea. It causes the airway to collapse or become blocked during sleep. People with sleep apnea will partially awaken as they struggle to breathe, but in the morning they will not be aware of the disturbances in their sleep. People with sleep apnea often snore loudly. However, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea, caused by relaxation of soft tissue in the back of the throat that blocks the passage of air. Central sleep apnea is caused by irregularities in the brain’s normal signals to breathe. Most people with sleep apnea will have a combination of both types. 

What causes sleep apnea?

You are more at risk for sleep apnea if you are overweight, male or have a family history of the disorder. Children with enlarged tonsils may also experience it.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

The hallmark symptom of the disorder is excessive daytime sleepiness.

Additional symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Restless sleep
  • Loud snoring (with periods of silence followed by gasps)
  • Falling asleep during the day
  • Morning headaches
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability, forgetfulness, and mood or behavior changes
  • Anxiety or depression 

Not everyone who has these symptoms will have sleep apnea, but it’s recommended that people who are experiencing even a few of these symptoms visit Ohio State’s Sleep Disorders Center for evaluation.

When your sleep is interrupted throughout the night, you can be drowsy during the day. People with sleep apnea are at higher risk for car crashes, work-related accidents, and other medical problems.

How does Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center diagnose sleep apnea?

Our sleep specialists diagnose sleep apnea based on medical and family histories, a physical exam and sleep study results.

If you think you have a sleep problem, consider keeping a sleep diary for one to two weeks. Write down when you go to sleep, wake up and take naps. Also, write down how much you sleep each night, how alert and rested you feel in the morning, and how sleepy you feel at various times during the day. Bring the diary with you to your next medical appointment. This information can help your doctor figure out whether you have a sleep disorder.

Our physicians also will want to know how loudly and often you snore or make gasping or choking sounds during sleep. Often you’re not aware of such symptoms and must ask a family member or bed partner to report them.

Let your doctor know if anyone in your family has been diagnosed with sleep apnea or has had symptoms of the disorder.

Your doctor will check your mouth, nose and throat for extra or large tissues. Children who have sleep apnea might have enlarged tonsils. Doctors may need only a physical exam and medical history to diagnose sleep apnea in children.

Adults who have sleep apnea may have an enlarged uvula or soft palate. The uvula is the tissue that hangs from the middle of the back of your mouth. The soft palate is the roof of your mouth in the back of your throat.

Sleep studies are tests that measure how well you sleep and how your body responds to sleep problems. These tests can help your doctor find out whether you have a sleep disorder and how severe it is. Sleep studies are the most accurate tests for diagnosing sleep apnea.

How does Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center treat sleep apnea?

If you have sleep apnea, it’s important to get treatment. Lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, surgery and breathing devices can treat sleep apnea in many people.

There are a variety of treatments for sleep apnea, depending on an individual’s medical history and the severity of the disorder. Most treatment regimens begin with lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol and medications that relax the central nervous system (for example, sedatives and muscle relaxants), losing weight and quitting smoking.

Some sleep apnea sufferers are helped by special pillows or devices that prevent them from sleeping on their backs. There are also oral appliances to keep the airway open during sleep. If these conservative methods are inadequate, your physician may recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a facemask you wear at night that blows pressurized air into your airway to keep it open. There are also surgical procedures that widen the airway. Some individuals may need a combination of therapies to successfully treat their sleep apnea. 

Untreated sleep apnea can be life threatening. Excessive daytime sleepiness can cause people to fall asleep at inappropriate times, such as while driving. Sleep apnea also appears to put individuals at risk for stroke and transient ischemic attacks, also known as “mini-strokes,” and is associated with coronary heart disease, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, heart attack and high blood pressure. Although there is no cure for sleep apnea, recent studies show that successful treatment can reduce the risk of heart and blood pressure problems.

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Jesse Mindel, MD, a neurologist at Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center specializes in the care of patients with sleeping disorders like sleep apnea. Dr. Mindel emphasizes the importance of treating these conditions to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

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