Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which the airway becomes partially or completely obstructed, interrupting breathing. This occurs repeatedly through the night, robbing individuals of quality sleep and leading to potentially serious complications. The condition affects approximately 18 million Americans.
The Link Between Snoring and Sleep Apnea
As discussed in the previous section, snoring occurs when tissues in the back of the throat collapse, blocking the airway. When the obstruction interferes with breathing, the condition is known as obstructive sleep apnea. In addition to snoring – which tends to be loud – the affected individual will frequently choke or gasp when resuming breathing, but rarely awakens. As a result, his or her sleep is light and non-restorative. In addition, oxygen levels plummet, forcing the heart to work harder.
Persons with obstructive sleep apnea often awaken with a dry mouth, sore throat or headache. Symptoms include daytime drowsiness and fatigue, irritability, lack of concentration and memory loss. The condition can put a strain on relationships, affect job performance, and put chronically tired drivers at risk for accidents.
Individuals most at risk are overweight, male, and over the age of 40. Other factors that can lead to sleep apnea include excess throat tissue, a large soft palate or uvula, enlarged tonsils and adenoids and a large neck. Allergies, sinus infections, alcohol and tobacco may also contribute, and can exacerbate the condition.
How Is Sleep Apnea Treated?
The most effective treatment method for obstructive sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy.
Controlled bursts of air are delivered to your airway passages to keep them from collapsing while you sleep. These are delivered through a mask worn over the nose (and sometimes mouth) attached to a machine via a length of tubing. CPAP therapy has a high rate of effectiveness, and has improved the quality of life for many people suffering from sleep apnea.
Not all individuals are able to tolerate the machine, however. Alternative treatment methods include oral appliances, nasal breathing strips and various surgical techniques.