Obstructive sleep apnea

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Does your "significant other" complain that your snoring wakes them up during the night or keeps them from getting to sleep in the first place? Do they poke you, waking you up because sometimes they're afraid you stopped breathing? If so, you may have a condition called obstructive sleep apnea.

When you have sleep apnea, the flow of air to your lungs pauses or decreases while you sleep. This happens because your airway has become narrow or blocked.

While you sleep, all of the muscles in your body become more relaxed, including the muscles that help keep your airway open, allowing air to flow freely to your lungs. Normally, your upper throat still remains open enough during sleep to let air easily pass by. Some people, however, have a narrowing throat area. When the muscles in their upper throat relax during sleep, their breathing can stop, often for more than 10 seconds. When breathing stops, it's called apnea.

Often you're not aware that you stopped breathing during sleep. But you may wake up not-refreshed, and feel drowsy and tired during the day.

If you have this condition, your doctor will perform a physical exam, carefully checking your mouth, neck, and throat. You may take a survey that asks a series of questions about daytime sleepiness, sleep quality, and bedtime habits. If your doctor suspects you do have sleep apnea, you make take a polysomnogram, a sleep study that monitors you while you sleep.

Once your doctor diagnoses sleep apnea, treatment will focus on keeping your airway open so that you breathe better while you sleep. Lifestyle steps can help. You can avoid alcohol or sedatives, and not just at bedtime, avoid sleeping on your back, and try to lose weight if you need to. And, exercise can help, even in the absence of weight loss.

Your doctor can also prescribe a positive airway pressure using a machine, with a tight-fitting face mask, that pumps slightly pressurized air into your mouth during your breathing cycle. This keeps your windpipe open and prevents apnea episodes.

Some people need to wear dental devices that keep their jaw forward during sleep. If lifestyle changes and devices don't help, surgery may be an option.

Untreated sleep apnea, however, may lead to or worsen heart disease. Most people with sleep apnea who get treatment have less anxiety and depression than they did before. They often perform better at work or school, too. Naturally, having less daytime sleepiness can lower your risk for accidents at work, while you drive and give you more energy throughout the day.

Obstructive sleep apnea

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 2/19/2016
  • Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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