Millions of Americans suffer from the effects of sleep apnea. When patients with this disorder sleep, the muscles of their throat and neck relax, which allows soft tissue to block the airway. Snoring results if the airway is only partially blocked, but when the airway obstructs completely, the person temporarily stops breathing. Doctors refer to this cessation of breathing as apnea. Since this serious condition occurs at night, physicians use the term sleep apnea.
Once a person stops breathing, he or she wakes up briefly and then falls back asleep. This cycle of respiratory cessation and arousal repeats itself over and over. Some people with the most severe cases can stop breathing up to an alarming 150 times in a single night. This recurrent pattern disrupts the normal sleep cycle, and individuals with sleep apnea never feel fully rested. Consequently, patients with this illness fall asleep frequently during the day. In extreme cases, patients can doze off during the course of a conversation or even behind the wheel of a car while driving. Some sufferers also experience extreme fatigue and difficulty staying awake at work, which can result in the ultimate loss of their jobs.
Doctors screen patients for sleep apnea by observing their physical appearance and asking a few simple questions. Since the condition occurs more commonly in the obese population, heavy individuals heighten physicians’ index of suspicion. Professionals delve further by asking about the telltale signs of frequent napping during the day, excessive daytime sleepiness, and snoring at night. In addition people with sleep apnea sometimes complain of waking up with severe headaches.
If you describe symptoms typical for sleep apnea, your doctor may order an overnight sleep study. During this procedure, a technician observes the sleep of a patient in a laboratory that is equipped with a comfortable bed and surroundings similar to a hotel room. Instruments monitor the oxygen level over the course of the night along with the chest wall movements, airflow from the nose, leg movements, brain wave patterns and an electrocardiogram. With the detection of patterned breathing cessation, the laboratory will diagnose sleep apnea.
Upon the confirmation of sleep apnea, your doctor will probably recommend sleeping with a special mask called CPAP along with weight loss. The CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) blows a small amount of air through the nose into the back of the throat. This pressure keeps the airway open and prevents the airway from occluding. A dramatic and overall improvement in well-being is usually reported by individuals with the use of CPAP. In rare cases, this mask might not help patients and physicians may recommend surgical procedures to remove the excess tissue in the throat and soft palate.