Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when muscles in the back of the throat relax during sleep. These muscles are responsible for supporting the uvula, the soft palate, tonsils, tongue and the side walls in the throat. When they relax, the airway narrows upon breathing in so that the body cannot take in an adequate breath. This can lower the oxygen level in the blood, and when the brain senses that the body cannot breathe, it rouses the body from sleep so that the airway will reopen. Central sleep apnea is not as common and occurs when the brain is not transmitting signals to the muscles responsible for breathing.
Sleep apnea is a very serious medical condition and there are a number of severe complications that may result from untreated or undiagnosed sleep apnea. These include: heart problems, high blood pressure, daytime fatigue, liver function problems, liver scarring, low blood oxygen, irritability and severe fatigue. People who are excessively fatigued during daylight hours are more likely to be involved in accidents while at work or driving. Sleep apnea may also cause memory problems, mood swings, hyperactivity and depression. It is essential to visit a physician to diagnose and treat sleep apnea in order to avoid these potential complications.
The first symptom of sleep apnea for most patients is that they never feel like they are getting enough sleep upon waking up in the morning. The reason for this is because while they may not be aware of it, the sleep apnea is rousing them repeatedly throughout the night. The most common symptoms relating to sleep apnea include: hypersomnia or excessive sleepiness during daylight hours, loud snoring, abrupt awakenings with shortness of breath, headache upon waking, attention difficulties, difficulty remaining asleep or insomnia and episodes of breathing cessation.
Most cases of potential sleep apnea go to a sleep disorder center where a trained specialist can evaluate the situation more extensively than a regular physician. They may utilize nocturnal polysomnography, a sleep test that monitors heart, brain and lung activity as well as arm and leg movements, breathing patterns and blood oxygen levels during sleep. This is the most effective way to determine whether or not sleep apnea is present.
The most common therapies for sleep apnea are CPAP, BiPAP and EPAP. CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure and is a machine that delivers air pressure by way of a mask placed over the nose during sleep. BiPAP is bi-level positive airway pressure, which provides more pressure during inhale and less pressure during exhale. EPAP stands for expiratory positive airway pressure, which is a small device for the nostrils that increases pressure in the airway upon exhalation in order to keep the airway open. Physicians may also recommend oral appliances, tissue removal, jaw repositioning, soft palate implants and tracheostomy when the first three types of therapies are not producing results.