Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder; although accompanied by snoring, it is a much more serious condition than simple snoring. Sleep apnea occurs when the patient repeatedly stops breathing during the night. The most common form is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which occurs when the throat muscles relax and block the airway. Central sleep apnea originates in the brain and occurs when the brain doesn't send the right signals to muscles that control breathing. Complex sleep apnea syndrome is a combination of both types.
OSA typically results when the muscles of the throat relax, which narrows the throat and restricts oxygen intake. The brain responds to the lower oxygen level by causing the patient to wake up. In central sleep apnea, the brain stops sending a message to the muscles, and the patient makes no effort to breathe. People who are obese are at greater risk of sleep apnea, especially if they have thick necks, which makes the airways narrow. Some people have anatomical issues, such as a narrow throat, large tonsils or a nasal obstruction.
Loud snoring is one of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea. The patient's parent or bed partner may witness episodes of shortness of breath and either patient or bed partner may report abrupt awakenings. People with sleep apnea are chronically sleep deprived and may have insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, morning headache or mental problems like difficulty concentrating. Some people also have mental health issues like irritability or depression.
Treatment depends on the type of sleep apnea and other factors. For example, central sleep apnea is a neurological problem. Losing weight or treating allergies, which is often recommended for OSA, doesn't usually help with central sleep apnea. People who have OSA may benefit from oral appliances to keep the jaw in the correct position, or from CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) to keep the airways open. Surgery may be necessary for enlarged tonsils and adenoids or nasal deformities.
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