What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes people to have trouble breathing, or to cease breathing altogether, periodically throughout sleep. These pauses in breathing can last as little as a few seconds or as long as a few minutes, and can occur more than 30 times in an hour. Sleep apnea disrupts sleep and can lead to a number of serious health complications.

In general, sleep apnea is a chronic condition, meaning that you probably won’t suffer from sleep apnea one night and be fine the next. Those with sleep apnea will have ongoing difficulties with getting adequate sleep.

Sleep apnea is a fairly common disorder with 200,000 documented cases in the United States annually. The disorder can affect individuals of any age, but it is most commonly diagnosed in people over the age of 40.

The number of documented cases isn’t an entirely accurate way to gauge how many people are affected by sleep apnea, however. That’s because sleep apnea can often go undiagnosed. Since people are only affected by sleep apnea while they are sleeping, they might not even be aware that they suffer from the disorder. Disorders are most dangerous when they go unnoticed, and untreated.

The most common type of sleep apnea is called obstructive sleep apnea. With this type of disorder, the airways collapse or become blocked during sleep, making it difficult to breathe. This will often result in loud snoring, which can be a good indication of sleep apnea. However, not everyone with sleep apnea snores, and snoring doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is suffering from sleep apnea. This means that you cannot rely on snoring alone to diagnose sleep apnea.

A less common, but no less dangerous, form of sleep apnea is called central sleep apnea. This type of disorder is caused by the brain not sending the right signals to control breathing rather than the airways being obstructed. Central sleep apnea does not cause snoring, making it harder to detect.

Sleep apnea can cause or contribute to a range of health complications such as:

  • Daytime fatigue
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Liver problems
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Unexpected complications with medications or surgeries

There are a number of factors that can contribute to sleep apnea including:

  • Weight
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Family history
  • Smoking
  • Use of alcohol
  • Heart disorders

Again, since sleep apnea only occurs while you’re sleeping, it can be hard to diagnose. Sleep apnea is typically noticed by a family member rather than the individual who is suffering from the disorder. If you or a loved one might be suffering from sleep apnea, contact your primary care physician, or schedule an appointment with a specialist.