What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times during the night. There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the more common of the two. Obstructive sleep apnea is characterized by repetitive episodes of complete or partial upper airway blockage during sleep. During an apnea episode, the diaphragm and chest muscles work harder as the pressure increases to open the airway. Breathing usually resumes with a loud gasp or body jerk. These episodes can interfere with sound sleep, reduce the flow of oxygen to vital organs, and cause heart rhythm irregularities.

In central sleep apnea (CSA), the airway is not blocked but the brain fails to signal the muscles to breathe due to instability in the respiratory control center. Central apnea is named as such because it is related to the function of the central nervous system.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

Often the first signs of OSA are recognized not by the patient, but by the bed partner. Many of those affected have no sleep complaints. The most common symptoms of OSA include:

  • Snoring
  • Daytime sleepiness or fatigue
  • Restlessness during sleep
  • Sudden awakenings with a sensation of gasping or choking
  • Dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening
  • Intellectual impairment, such as trouble concentrating, forgetfulness, or irritability
  • Night sweats
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Headaches

Am I at Risk for Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea can affect anyone at any age, even children. Risk factors for sleep apnea include:

  • Being male
  • Being overweight
  • Being over age 40
  • Having a large neck size (17 inches or greater in men and 16 inches or greater in women)
  • Having large tonsils, a large tongue, or a small jaw bone
  • Having a family history of sleep apnea
  • Gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD
  • Nasal obstruction due to a deviated septum, allergies, or sinusproblems

 

What Are the Effects of Sleep Apnea?

If left untreated, sleep apnea can result in a growing number of health problems, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Heart failure, irregular heartbeats, and heart attacks
  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • Worsening of ADHD
  • Headaches

In addition, untreated sleep apnea may be responsible for poor performance in everyday activities, such as at work and school, motor vehicle crashes, and academic underachievement in children and adolescents.

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

The diagnosis of sleep apnea is relatively straightforward, based on sleep history and an overnight sleep study called a polysomnogram

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