Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. You may have sleep apnea if you snore loudly, and you feel tired even after a full night's sleep.
The main types of sleep apnea are:
Obstructive sleep apnea, the more common form that occurs when throat muscles relax.
Central sleep apnea, which occurs when your brain doesn't send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing.
Complex sleep apnea syndrome, also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, occurs when someone has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.
If you think you might have any form of sleep apnea, see your doctor. Treatment can ease your symptoms and may help prevent heart problems and other complications.
Symptoms of Sleep Apnea
The signs and symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas overlap, sometimes making the type of sleep apnea more difficult to determine. The most common signs and symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas include:
- Loud snoring, which is usually more prominent in obstructive sleep apnea
- Episodes of breathing cessation during sleep witnessed by another person
- Abrupt awakenings accompanied by shortness of breath, which more likely indicates central sleep apnea
- Awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat
- Morning headache
- Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
- Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
- Attention problems
When to see a doctor
Consult a medical professional if you experience, or if your partner notices, the following:
- Snoring loud enough to disturb the sleep of others or yourself
- Shortness of breath, gasping for air or choking that awakens you from sleep
- Intermittent pauses in your breathing during sleep
- Excessive daytime drowsiness, which may cause you to fall asleep while you're working, watching television or even driving
Many people don't think of snoring as a sign of something potentially serious, and not everyone who has sleep apnea snores. But be sure to talk to your doctor if you experience loud snoring, especially snoring that's punctuated by periods of silence.Ask your doctor about any sleep problem that leaves you chronically fatigued, sleepy and irritable. Excessive daytime drowsiness (hypersomnia) may be due to sleep apnea or to other disorders, such as narcolepsy.
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax. These muscles support the soft palate, the triangular piece of tissue hanging from the soft palate (uvula), the tonsils, the side walls of the throat and the tongue.When the muscles relax, your airway narrows or closes as you breathe in, and you can't get an adequate breath in. This may lower the level of oxygen in your blood.Your brain senses this inability to breathe and briefly rouses you from sleep so that you can reopen your airway. This awakening is usually so brief that you don't remember it.
If you or your partner suspects that you have sleep apnea, you'll probably first see your primary care doctor. However, in some cases when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred immediately to a sleep specialist.
For milder cases of sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend only lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or quitting smoking. And if you have nasal allergies, your doctor will recommend treatment for your allergies. If these measures don't improve your signs and symptoms or if your apnea is moderate to severe, a number of other treatments are available.