Obstructive sleep apnea is a common and serious sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing during sleep. The airway repeatedly becomes blocked, limiting the amount of air that reaches your lungs. When this happens, you may snore loudly or making choking noises as you try to breathe. Your brain and body becomes oxygen deprived and you may wake up. This may happen a few times a night, or in more severe cases, several hundred times a night.
In many cases, an apnea, or temporary pause in breathing, is caused by the tissue in the back of the throat collapsing. The muscles of the upper airway relax when you fall asleep. If you sleep on your back, gravity can cause the tongue to fall back. This narrows the airway, which reduces the amount of air that can reach your lungs. The narrowed airway causes snoring by making the tissue in back of the throat vibrate as you breathe.
Sleep apnea can make you wake up in the morning feeling tired or unrefreshed even though you have had a full night of sleep. During the day, you may feel fatigued, have difficulty concentrating or you may even unintentionally fall asleep. This is because your body is waking up numerous times throughout the night, even though you might not be conscious of each awakening.
The lack of oxygen your body receives can have negative long-term consequences for your health. This includes:
- High Blood Pressure
- Heart Disease
- Pre-Diabetes and Diabetes
There are many people with sleep apnea who have not been diagnosed or received treatment. A sleep medicine physician can diagnose obstructive sleep apnea using an in-lab sleep study or a home sleep apnea test. Sleep apnea is manageable using continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, the front-line treatment for sleep apnea, oral appliance therapy or surgery.
Obstructive sleep apnea in adults is considered a sleep-related breathing disorder. Causes and symptoms differ for obstructive sleep apnea in children and central sleep apnea.
The most common symptom of sleep apnea is snoring. However, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea. Snoring is likely to be a sign of sleep apnea when it is followed by silent breathing pauses and choking or gasping sounds.
People with sleep apnea often have daytime sleepiness or fatigue.
Common symptoms of sleep apnea include:
- Loud or frequent snoring
- Silent pauses in breathing
- Choking or gasping sounds
- Daytime sleepiness or fatigue
- Unrefreshing sleep
- Morning headaches
- Nocturia (waking during the night to go to the bathroom)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory loss
- Decreased sexual desire
The major risk factor for sleep apnea is excess body weight. You are much more likely to have sleep apnea if you are overweight or obese. However, sleep apnea can occur in slim people too. Common risk factors for sleep apnea include:
- Excess weight – Your risk for sleep apnea is higher if you are overweight with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more or obese with a BMI of 30 or higher.
- Large neck size - Your risk for sleep apnea is higher if you have a neck size of 17 inches or more for men, or 16 inches or more for women. A large neck has more soft tissue that can block your airway during sleep.
- Middle age – Sleep apnea can occur at any age. However, it is more common between young adulthood and middle age.
- Male gender – Sleep apnea is more common in men than in women. For women the risk of sleep apnea increases with menopause.
- Hypertension – High blood pressure is extremely common in people who have sleep apnea.
- Family History – Sleep apnea is a heritable condition. This means that you have a higher risk of sleep apnea if a family member also has it. Inherited traits that increase the risk for sleep apnea include obesity and physical features such as a recessed jaw. Other common family factors - such as physical activity and eating habits - also may play a role.
Snoring - Overview and Facts
Snoring is the often loud or harsh sound that can occur as you sleep. You snore when the flow of air as you breathe makes the tissues in the back of your throat vibrate. The sound most often occurs as you breathe in air, and can come through the nose, mouth or a combination of the two. It can occur during any stage of sleep.
About half of people snore at some point in their lives. Snoring is more common in men, though many women snore. It appears to run in families and becomes more common as you get older. About 40 percent of adult men and 24 percent of adult women are habitual snorers. Men become less likely to snore after the age of 70.
Sleeping on your back may make you more likely to snore. It may also occur as your throat muscles relax from use of alcohol or other depressants. Congestion from a cold or allergies can also cause you to snore.
Snoring can be a nuisance to your partner and anyone else nearby. You may even snore loudly enough to wake yourself up. Though, in many cases people do not realize that they snore. Snoring can also cause you to have a dry mouth or sore or irritated throat when you wake up.
Light snoring may not disrupt your overall sleep quality. Heavy snoring may be associated with obstructive sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder and a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and many other health problems.
Snoring vs. Sleep Apnea
Snoring can be a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea but not everyone who snores has the sleep disorder. Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that causes you to temporarily stop breathing when you are asleep. If you are regularly tired during the day even though you have had sufficient sleep or if your snoring is paired with choking or gasping sound, you may have sleep apnea. A sleep medicine physician is trained to detect and diagnose sleep apnea using an in-lab sleep study or home sleep testing. Sleep apnea is manageable using several approaches including CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), oral appliance therapy and surgery.