Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. It’s far more common than once thought, affecting as many as 18 million Americans of all ages and both genders (although it is more common in men).
There are two types of sleep apnea:
- Obstructive sleep apnea happens when air can’t flow into or out of the nose or mouth although efforts to breathe continue
- Central sleep apnea happens when the brain fails to send the appropriate signals to the muscles to start breathing. Central sleep apnea is less common than obstructive sleep apnea.
With sleep apnea, you have involuntary breathing pauses or "apneic events" during a single night's sleep. There may be as many as 20 to 30 or more events per hour. These events are usually accompanied by snoring between apnea episodes, and you may experience choking sensations.
During an apneic event, you can’t breathe in oxygen or exhale carbon dioxide. This results in low levels of oxygen and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood, which alerts the brain to resume breathing, causing an arousal.
With each arousal, a signal is sent from the brain to the upper airway muscles to open the airway. Breathing is resumed, often with a loud snort or gasp. Frequent arousals, although necessary for breathing to restart, prevent restorative, deep sleep.
With obstructive sleep apnea, certain mechanical and structural problems in the airway cause the interruptions in breathing during sleep. Apnea happens:
- When the throat muscles and tongue relax during sleep and partially block the opening of the airway
- When the muscles of the soft palate at the base of the tongue and the uvula relax and sag, the airway becomes blocked, making breathing labored and noisy and even stopping it altogether
- In obese people when an excess amount of tissue in the airway causes it to be narrowed
- With a narrowed airway, the person continues his or her efforts to breathe, but air can’t easily flow into or out of the nose or mouth
Early diagnosis and treatment are important because sleep apnea is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition. If left untreated, it is associated with:
- Irregular heartbeat
- High blood pressure
- Heart attack
- Daytime sleepiness
- Increased risk of motor vehicle accidents
Why Choose Cooper to Treat Sleep Apnea
As South Jersey’s only tertiary-care, academic health system, Cooper University Health Care is home to doctors and surgeons with advanced expertise in the full range of medical and surgical specialties.
As a result, we’re able to offer the comprehensive, well-coordinated care that’s required to effectively diagnose and treat sleep apnea. From timely, accurate diagnostic testing in our state-of-the-art sleep lab to surgery that’s tailored to your unique situation, Cooper has what you need.
Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea
People most likely to develop sleep apnea include those who:
- Snore loudly
- Are overweight
- Have high blood pressure
- Have some physical abnormality in the nose, throat, or other parts of the upper airway
- Have a family history of sleep apnea, since it seems to run in some families, suggesting a possible genetic component
Use of alcohol and sleeping pills increases the frequency and duration of breathing pauses in people with sleep apnea.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
The frequent breaks in deep, restorative sleep caused by sleep apnea often lead to:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Dry mouth and throat
- Sore throat
- Problems paying attention
- Mood swings
- Weight gain
How Sleep Apnea Is Diagnosed
Diagnosing sleep apnea is not simple because there can be many different causes. Primary healthcare providers, pulmonologists, otolaryngologists (ear, nose, and throat specialists), neurologists, or other healthcare providers with specialty training in sleep disorders may be involved in making a diagnosis and recommending treatment.
Several tests are available for evaluating sleep apnea, including:
- Polysomnography: This test records a variety of body functions during sleep, such as the electrical activity of the brain, eye movement, muscle activity, heart rate, respiratory effort, airflow, and blood oxygen levels
- Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT): This test measures how quickly you fall asleep. People without sleep problems usually take an average of 10 to 20 minutes to fall asleep. People who fall asleep in less than 5 minutes are likely to need some type of treatment for sleep disorders.
Diagnostic tests usually are performed in a sleep center, but new technology may allow some sleep studies to be done in your home.
How Sleep Apnea Is Treated
Treatment depends on what’s causing your sleep apnea and how severe it is, along with your age, overall health, and tolerance for specific therapies, which may include:
- Supplemental oxygen: This may safely help some people, but does not end sleep apnea or prevent daytime sleepiness
- Behavioral changes: An important part of a treatment program, and in mild cases of sleep apnea, behavioral therapy may be all that is needed. You may be advised to:
- Avoid the use of alcohol, tobacco, and sleeping pills
- Lose weight if overweight (even a 10% weight loss can reduce the number of apneic events for most people)
- Use pillows and other devices to help sleep in a side position
- Devices: Physical or mechanical therapy devices may include:
- Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is a mask worn over the nose during sleep; pressure from an air blower forces air through the nasal passages
- Dental appliances that reposition the lower jaw and the tongue have been helpful to some people with mild sleep apnea
- Surgery: Procedures that are beneficial in certain cases include:
- Removal of adenoids and tonsils, nasal polyps, or other growths or tissue in the airway, or to correct structural deformities
- Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) to remove excess tissue at the back of the throat (tonsils, uvula, and part of the soft palate)
- Surgical reconstruction of deformities of the lower jaw
- Bariatric (weight loss) surgery to treat obesity is sometimes recommended for appropriate patients
Notably, there are no medications that have been shown to be effective in treating sleep apnea.
To schedule an appointment with a physician who can help address your sleep apnea, please call 800.8.COOPER (800.826.6737).