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Sleep Apnea 101

sleep apnea coupleYou may have heard of sleep apnea on a health program, or on a radio program, or even just heard people talk about it, and not really been sure what on earth they were talking about – but you were too shy to ask at the time. That is how most people hear about sleep apnea, but it can be very difficult to simply ask people what it means. We want to encourage people to learn more about sleep apnea, which is why we have put this guide together – to help people like you, as well as people who have been told by their doctor that they could have sleep apnea, learn a lot more about this medical condition.

What is sleep apnea?

Put very simply, sleep apea – or to give it its full name, obstructive sleep apnea – is a sleep disorder. That means that it is a medical condition that interrupts the natural flow of sleep. With obstructive sleep apnea, an individual’s breathing will stop for a moment, and then re-start again, but this will happen several times in one sleep session. A person is diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea if these apneas, or pauses in breathing, last for ten seconds or more.

There is another type of sleep apnea called central sleep apnea, which is much more serious, although the symptoms are exactly the same as obstructive sleep apnea.

How does sleep apnea even happen?

The difficulty is that breathing is one of the unconscious things that our bodies do. Another example of this is blinking – we don’t even have to think about it for it to happen. When we are asleep, these processes are supposed to continue because our unconscious is in charge of them. Obstructive sleep apnea is quite simple biologically: it happens when the muscles that lie at the very back of your throat struggle to keep your airwaves open, despite the fact that your brain is telling your body to breathe. In cases where the sleep apnea is actually central sleep apnea, that is much more serious, because it shows that the brain itself is forgetting to tell your body to breathe. Thankfully, obstructive sleep apnea is much more common than central sleep apnea.

What are the symptoms for sleep apnea – how can I tell if I have it?

One of the easiest ways for people to tell if they have sleep apnea, and how most referrals occur, is because a bed partner has noticed that someone is not breathing at certain points during the night. This can be very frightening for the partner of the person with sleep apnea, and that is often how a person comes to a doctor for help and advice. However, there are many other symptoms of sleep apnea, which you can keep an eye out for even if no one has mentioned to you that you are not breathing continuously when you are sleep.

Fragmented sleep is the main symptom of sleep apnea; people with sleep apnea will wake up tired every morning, even if they have been in bed sleeping for many hours. Sleep apnea will also lead to low blood oxygen levels early in the morning, because your body has been starved of oxygen. Over time, a person with sleep apnea will start to have problems with their memory, can develop heart disease, and even suffer from hypertension, otherwise known as high blood pressure. Sleep apnea can be very dangerous for people when they drive, as they will often be in a drowsy state.

Am I likely to have sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is actually remarkably common, even if people do not talk about it very much. Believe it or not, there are more than eighteen million people in the United States of America alone that have some form of sleep apnea. It is difficult to tell how many children have sleep apnea because children are often very light sleepers, but specialists currently believe that between two to three percent of all children will have sleep apnea – and for children that snore, it is believed that as high a figure as ten percent of them could have undiagnosed sleep apnea. Although the stereotype of snorers are overweight, middle aged men, sleep apnea can actually affect any person at any age.

What causes sleep apnea – and can I avoid it?

Sleep apnea does not have one single cause, which means that it has incredibly complex reasons why a person could develop it. There are some particular risk factors that you can look out for. People that have small airways are more likely to have sleep apnea, as are those with a recessed chin, small jaw, or a large overbite as this affects the way that your windpipe develops. Someone with a large neck is much more likely to develop sleep apnea, so you should measure your neck if you believe that you are within the risk group. If you are a man, a neck size of seventeen inches or wider puts you within the risk group; if you are a woman, a neck size of sixteen inches of wider puts you within the risk group. Of course, there are very few things that you can do about these genetic biological factors. There are other environmental factors that you do have control over. People that are overweight are much more likely to develop sleep apnea, as are those people who smoke, or abuse alcohol. Sleep apnea seems to run in families because body types are generally inherited. Lastly, there are certain ethnicities that seem to be much more prone to developing sleep apnea, such as African-Americans, Pacific-Islanders, and Hispanic people.

How is sleep apnea treated?

It can be very frightening to be told that you or a loved one has sleep apnea, but thankfully being told this is not a death sentence. Instead, you can now start to thinking about the wide range of treatments and therapies that are now available to you. Most treatments will begin with behavioral therapy. This type of treatment attempts to remove any risk factors from you, to try to reduce the number of reasons why you could be experiencing sleep apnea. It is likely that you will be told not to drink any alcohol or smoke, and to avoid absolutely all sleeping pills and sedatives. You will also be taught the best sleeping positions to help your airways to breathe naturally; most people find that sleeping on their side helps to keep their airways open at all times (health practitioners should look at our course on how to add sleep apnea treatment to their business).

If you have been told that you have central sleep apnea, that can be even more frightening, because it can feel that your brain has been letting you down. Although no one is entirely sure exactly why, sleeping on your side has proven to be very effective in treating central sleep apnea.

After these changes have been made to your life, you may find that your problems with sleep apnea have disappeared anyway. If you discover that sleep apnea is still proving to be a problem, then the next step is to start to bring technology into your treatment plan. There are devices calls CPAPs and APAPs that you can use – your doctor will tell you which they think is the best one to start with. CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, and APAP stands for Automatic Positive Airway Pressure. These two machines make it possible for your airway to stay open throughout the time that you are asleep. Although they may sound a little odd, all you will have to do is wear a plastic facial mask while you are asleep. They are not uncomfortable, and although you may look a little strange, they will help keep you breathing throughout the time that you are asleep.

The CPAP and APAP masks will come in all different shapes and sizes, and if you have been told that you should use one of them to sleep with to help treat your sleep apnea, then you should make sure that you spend an awful long time choosing the mask that you are going to have. Remember, you will be sleeping in this mask, so it is essential that you feel comfortable in that mask. Every patient will suit a different mask, and sometimes it is only through trial and error that a person really discovers which is the best fit for them.

There are also different medications and stimulators that have been approved by medical boards and the U. S. Food and Drug Administration have approved to help treat sleep apnea from the inside out. You should make sure that you only take these medicines if they have been prescribed by your doctor, and you take them exactly as you were told to.

We hope that this information has been useful to you, and you now feel more prepared to talk and think about sleep apnea. Remember: if you have any concerns that you, or a loved one, may have sleep apnea, talk to a doctor about it.

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