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Sleep Apnea: More Serious and Easier To Treat Than You Think

Snoring, being tired all day, and falling asleep during the day are all signs of sleep apnea. 

What Happens During Normal Sleep?

As we fall asleep we pass through various levels of sleep. In order for our body to repair and rest, we must get enough of the deepest level of sleep. At this level all of our muscles relax, including those in our neck and throat.  With good sleep, our immune system (ability to fight disease) is healthy and our metabolism (the ability to burn calories) functions at the proper rate.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a condition in which a person stops breathing for 10 or more seconds 30 or more times during eight hours of sleep. These episodes are usually caused when the tongue or tissue in the back of the throat relaxes in the deepest levels of sleep and blocks the airway. Since your brain will sense that you are not getting oxygen, you will usually wake up or be brought back to a higher level of sleep. This means you will not get the rest that is needed.

Why is Sleep Apnea a Problem?

During the periods when a person stops breathing, oxygen is not getting into the blood.  Your body must have oxygen to function. If the decrease in oxygen is bad enough, the important organs (heart, kidney and brain) can be damaged. Sleep apnea has been shown to cause or worsen high blood pressure, increase the chance of a heart attack or cause an irregular heartbeat. People with sleep apnea are twice as likely to have a stroke. Sleep apnea often results in weight gain, which can make the apnea worse as more tissue grows in the back of the throat.  If it becomes severe enough and goes untreated for a long time, it can cause breathing failure and even death.

Sleep apnea can result in poor sleep, and people with this condition are often very tired during the day. They may fall asleep when they sit down, even during work or driving. This can result in poor performance at work or school, memory loss, poor sexual performance, anxiety and depression. It can be especially dangerous if you fall asleep while driving or operating machinery.

How Can The Doctor Tell if I Have Sleep Apnea?

If you snore and/or have any of the signs of sleep apnea such as increased daytime sleepiness, awakening frequently in the night, feeling tired even after sleep or falling asleep often during the day, you should ask your doctor for an evaluation by a sleep specialist.

If the specialist thinks that you may have sleep apnea, he/she will order tests in which you spend the night at a sleep lab.  The sleep technologist hooks you up to monitors and watches what happens during your sleep.  The sleep testing also can determine if you have any other sleep disorders such as restless legs, night terrors or REM disorder.  There are also tests for narcolepsy if the specialist thinks that this may be part of the problem. Once the test is done, the specialist reads the test to determine if you have sleep apnea and how severe it is.

How is Sleep Apnea Treated?

Sleep apnea is most often treated with a device called CPAP (constant positive airway pressure). This device connects to a pillow-like mask that fits over the nose, the mouth or the nose and mouth. It pushes air into the upper respiratory tract to hold the tissue back so that it does not fall into the airway. If you have sleep apnea during the first testing night, the CPAP test may be done then. The sleep technologist will place a mask on your face and adjust the pressure until there is no more apnea. Many people feel better during the first night. There are many different masks so if the first one is not comfortable enough ask to have another fitting.

Are There Any Other Treatment Options?

In some situations, surgery or dental appliances are recommended by your physician.  But there are treatments you can do yourself to reduce sleep apnea:

  • Weight loss – Can reduce the amount of tissue in the back of the throat and decrease the severity of the sleep apnea.
  • Sleeping on your side - Helps to reduce snoring and apnea.
  • Quitting smoking - Smoking causes irritation and swelling of tissue in the upper airway, worsening sleep apnea.
  • Avoiding alcohol and sleeping pills – These cause over-relaxation of the muscles in the upper airway.


Reviewed: May 26, 2005
Revised: June 2008

© 2018 American Association for Respiratory Care