Sleep apnea — apnoea for those given to Latin spellings — is the term for what happens when you stop breathing during your sleep The word “apnea” actually comes from ancient Greek and means “lack of breath.” It’s a fairly common disorder that affects millions of Americans. Depending on the degree of breath interruption, it can be a life-threatening disorder. You may be thinking, “OK, I snore a lot, but nobody ever died from snoring.” In truth, your snoring may be an indication that you’re not getting good quality sleep. Lack of good quality sleep could cause you to fall asleep at the wheel of your car or truck. Your death certificate won’t list “snoring” as the cause of death; but snoring can be a sign that you’re having sleep difficulties that could have extremely serious consequences.
An apneic episode can last from as little as ten seconds to as long as a minute. These episodes don’t just interfere with your breathing, they also interfere with your sleep. If you are dealing with sleep apnea, you probably find yourself struggling so hard to breathe that you wake yourself up. But you may not remember, come morning, just how hard you had to work — and how often you woke — just to breathe.
Sleep researchers generally recognize three types of sleep apnea. These, in decreasing order of occurrence, are obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and mixed sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is far-and-away the most common of the three. It defines a physical blockage of the airway, typically caused by extreme soft tissue relaxation in the throat. Briefly, your throat closes up, you can’t breathe, then the brain recognizes that you’re choking (cued in by changes in your oxygen levels) and “tells” the musculature to open up so you can resume breathing.
Central sleep apnea doesn’t involve a blockage of the airway. Rather, the brain itself fails to send appropriate signals to your breathing mechanisms. When your oxygen level signals a problem, the brain “jump starts” and resumes breathing. Central sleep apnea is much less common that in obstructive sleep apnea. This is a medical condition that you should discuss — at some length, if necessary — with your doctor.
Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of the obstructive and central sleep apneas. This is extremely rare and tends to be treated in much the same way as OSA.
You should begin to suspect sleep apnea if you’re frequently excessively sleepy during the daytime. This is one of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea. You don’t get any rest at night — or far less sleep than you need, anyway — because you’re constantly waking up, desperately trying to breathe. These constant interruptions to the deep sleep that your body needs every night can result in more than just excessive tiredness.
If you’re a noisy snorer — ask your bed partner — that’s often an indication that you’re having to deal with sleep apnea. Severe sleep apnea frequently results in additional daytime symptoms that your family and friends may notice before you do. Such daytime symptoms include — but are not limited to — the following: sleep health
- Changes in behavior and/or mood.
- Drifting off to sleep during a busy work day.
- Extreme tiredness during the day.
- Increased heart rate.
- Increased need to urinate or episodes of bed-wetting.
- Lack of concentration.
- Morning headaches.
- Weight gain.
If you’re experiencing these symptoms, make an appointment to discuss them with your doctor. Do not assume that these symptoms will just go away, or that they’re not precursors to a serious problem.