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Sleep Apnea Explained

Sleep apnea or sleep-disordered breathing is simply when a person experiences one or more pauses in breathing during sleep. Each pause can last anywhere from a few seconds to a minute or more. These pauses can seriously reduce the oxygenation status of the body and lead to more jeopardizing conditions like a stroke or heart disease. Basically, the body needs a certain amount of oxygen to be maintained at all times. Pauses in breathing can jeopardize the amount of oxygen entering the body to the tissues and, of course, the brain.

Types of Sleep Apnea:

Obstructive Sleep Apnea – This is, by far, the most common type of sleep apnea. The breathing pauses are caused by an obstruction in the airway. The obstruction most often occurs in the upper airway. The upper airway consists of the nasal cavities, soft palate, uvula, and the throat. Obstructions can occur at any point along the upper airway. Often when a person enters a deeper level of sleep, these soft tissues relax and can cause an obstruction to airflow. It is important to note that this type of sleep apnea is most often associated with snoring. However, just because someone snores, this does not mean they always have sleep apnea.

(See figure 1 below: The base of the tongue is causing the obstruction in this patient)

Note: We will also refer to positional sleep apnea in further articles. This is a subset of patients with Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

Credits to Habib M’henni / Wikimedia Commons

Central Sleep Apnea - Central sleep apnea is a type of sleep apnea that is more difficult to treat and sometimes more dangerous then obstructive sleep apnea. The cause of the breathing pauses is from a misfire or delayed message from the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Either the brain fails to send the signal to the muscles that controls breathing, or the spinal cord fails to deliver the message. This can be difficult to treat because the problem is with the brain and its signaling system. Complex Sleep Apnea (or Mixed Sleep Apnea) – This is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

Potential Complications

Sleep apnea can be brutal, not just for the person experiencing it, but also for the person trying to sleep next to them. If left untreated, sleep apnea can increase the risk for the following conditions:

  • Heart attacks
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Obesity
  • Cardiac arrhythmias
  • Accidents can occur at work or while driving because of poor concentration and fatigue.