Key Points about Sleep Apnea

  • There are three main types of sleep apnea, which are determined by the underlying cause of the condition.
  • Diagnosis of sleep apnea involves undergoing a physical exam, keeping a home sleep log and spending the night in a sleep lab for observation.
  • Treatment for sleep apnea typically includes making lifestyle modifications, wearing a device during the night to help with airflow or undergoing a surgical procedure.

Overview

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes you to repeatedly stop breathing while you’re sleeping. If not properly diagnosed and managed, sleep apnea can lead to a variety of complications, including high blood pressure, heart problems, type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome. 

There are three main types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea. This is the most common type, and it occurs when the throat muscles relax.
  • Central sleep apnea. This type occurs when the brain doesn’t send the proper signals to the muscles that regulate breathing.
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome. This type combines both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea causes 

Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by the muscles in the back of the throat relaxing. Central sleep apnea is caused when the area of your brain that controls your breathing muscles doesn’t send the proper signals to those muscles.

Sleep apnea risk factors

Factors that put you at an increased risk for developing sleep apnea include:

  • Being a smoker
  • Being male
  • Being older
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Having a family history of sleep apnea
  • Having a larger neck
  • Having a small upper airway (or large tongue, tonsils or uvula)
  • Having intact tonsils and adenoids
  • Having nasal congestion, due to allergies or anatomical issues
  • Using sedatives or tranquilizers

Sleep apnea symptoms

Signs and symptoms of sleep apnea can include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Gasping for breath during sleep
  • Having headaches in the morning
  • Insomnia (trouble staying asleep)
  • Irritability
  • Stopping breathing during your sleep (noticed by another person)
  • Trouble concentrating on tasks during the day
  • Very loud snoring [link to: Snoring page within this section]
  • Waking up with dry mouth

Sleep apnea diagnosis

Your specialist will use one or more of the following diagnostic tools to diagnose sleep apnea:

  • Physical exam. Your specialist will complete a physical exam and ask you about your symptoms and history related to sleep apnea.
  • Sleep log. You may need to complete a sleep log for a period of time. This is a detailed record of your sleeping activity at home. If you share your bed with anyone, your sleep specialist may also ask them to fill out the log.
  • Sleep study. Your specialist may recommend you undergo a sleep study at a sleep lab so that you can be closely monitored in your sleep. A sleep study records your brain activity, breathing and other body functions while you’re asleep.

Sleep apnea treatment

Your sleep specialist may recommend one or more of the following treatments to help manage your sleep apnea:

  • Lifestyle modifications. If your sleep apnea is mild, your sleep specialist may recommend you begin treatment with making lifestyle modifications. These changes may include losing weight, quitting smoking or taking allergy medicine to open up your airways. 
  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. A CPAP is a wearable device that delivers air pressure through a mask while you’re sleeping. This is the most common way of treating sleep apnea.
  • Oral appliance. Your sleep specialist may recommend you try an oral appliance to help keep your throat open while you’re sleeping. You would work with your dentist to be fitted for this type of device.
  • Surgery. If your sleep apnea is severe or other more conservative treatment options haven’t been effective, your sleep specialist may recommend you undergo surgery to correct your condition. Surgical procedures to treat sleep apnea including removing excess tissue, repositioning your jaw or creating a new air passageway.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing a sleep medicine provider for more specialized treatment.