What is Sleep Apnea?

Jordan Querido
23 January 2012

Sleeping near someone who snores can be a nuisance; however, it can also be a sign of a serious health concern. How so? Well, snoring is a possible symptom of a sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA for short). OSA is a form of sleep disorder where a person will stop breathing (called an "apnea") during their sleep for 10 to 30 seconds at a time.

In OSA, deep sleep relaxes the soft tissue in the back of the throat which leads to snoring. If the soft tissue relaxes even further, it blocks the air tubes making it impossible to breathe. As a result, no oxygen can enter the body, so the amount of oxygen in the body starts to decrease. When the amount of oxygen in the body decreases below a certain level, the brain tells the person to wake up from the deep sleep into a light sleep. This is enough to move the soft tissue in the back of the throat out of the way so that breathing is possible again. It is common for this cycle to occur hundreds of times a night without the person fully waking up or ever being aware that it happened.

Fast Fact: Nearly 25 per cent of middle-aged men show signs of OSA; however, the majority are not aware that they suffer from the syndrome. Snoring and a restless sleep in OSA may sound bad enough; however, research is showing that there are many other serious side-effects. This ranges from changes in mood like depression and irritability, to an increased risk of stroke and heart attacks, increased likelihood of causing a car crash, and even tissue loss in the area of the brain responsible for storing memory.

Did You Know?
English bulldogs commonly suffer from OSA due to the anatomy of their airways. Not all people who snore have OSA. It is more common in people who are overweight, who smoke and drink alcohol, are male, and over the age of 65. The most common way to detect OSA is with overnight polysomnography, which measures things like brain activity, eye movement, muscle tone, heart beats, breathing, movement of your chest and stomach, and oxygen levels in your blood.

Did You Know?
Central sleep apnea is another form of sleep apnea that is experienced when the brain stops telling your body to breathe. This form is less common than OSA.

Most people with OSA are prescribed continuous positive airway pressure (or CPAP for short). This machine provides a constant flow of air in through the nose which helps keep the airways open. Other treatments include losing weight, sleeping upright or on your side, oral appliances, surgery, and even practicing the didgeridoo.

Learn More!

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

Mayo Clinic

Jordan Querido

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