Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea occurs when your breathing stops for brief periods of time during sleep. It can last for 10-30 seconds and may occur up to 20-30 times per hour. During one night of sleep, this can cause up to 400 episodes of interrupted breathing.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are three types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive apnea — caused by a temporary, partial or complete blockage of the airway
  • Central apnea — caused by a temporary failure to make an effort to breathe
  • Mixed apnea — a combination of the first two types

Are You at Risk for Sleep Apnea?

Risk factors for developing sleep apnea include: 

  • Male gender
  • Middle age or older
  • Obesity
  • A large neck circumference
  • A family history of apnea
  • Structural abnormalities of the nose, throat or other parts of the respiratory tract, like:
    • Polyps
    • Severely enlarged tonsils
    • Deviated nasal septum
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Using sedatives and sleeping aids
  • Using alcohol
  • Smoking

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue and sleepiness during waking hours
  • Loud snoring
  • Breathing that stops during the night (as noticed by a bed partner)
  • Repeated waking at night
  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Morning headaches
  • Poor concentration or problems with memory
  • Irritability or short temper

People with chronic, untreated sleep apnea may be at risk for:

  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Depression
  • Hypertension
  • Heart disease

Sleep Studies

You can find out if you have sleep apnea through an overnight sleep study. 

Overnight Sleep Study (Polysomnography)

This test helps detect the presence and severity of sleep apnea. During sleep, it measures your:

  • Eye and muscle movements
  • Brain activity (electroencephalogram)
  • Heart rate
  • Breathing (pattern and depth)
  • Percent saturation of your red blood cells with oxygen

In addition to sleep studies, your doctor may order:

  • Blood tests
  • Electrocardiogram
  • Pulmonary function tests

Treating Sleep Apnea

You can access a number of treatment options for sleep apnea.

Behavioral Therapy for Sleep Apnea

You can lessen your symptoms by:

  • Losing weight 
  • Avoiding sedatives, sleeping pills, alcohol and nicotine
  • Sleeping on your side instead of your back
  • Using pillows to increase your level of comfort when sleeping
  • Avoiding driving or operating potentially hazardous equipment

Mechanical Therapy

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) entails wearing a mask over your nose and/or mouth during sleep. An air blower forces enough constant and continuous air through your air passages to prevent the tissues from collapsing and blocking the airway. In some cases, dental appliances that help keep the tongue or jaw in a more forward position may help.

Find out more about what's involved with a CPAP machine.

New: A CPAP Alternative

If you struggle with using a CPAP machine, you may qualify for Inspire, a pacemaker-like device that keeps you breathing while you sleep.

Surgery for Sleep Apnea

Your doctor may recommend surgery. It's most often beneficial in pediatric patients.

The types of surgery that treat sleep apnea include:

  • Adenotonsillectomy — removal of adenoids and tonsils
  • Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty — removal of excess soft tissue from the nose and/or throat
  • Maxillomandibular advancement — moving your jawbone forward
  • Tracheotomy — for life-threatening cases of sleep apnea, an opening is made in the windpipe

Weight-loss surgery (bariatric surgery) may help with weight loss and reduce complications related to obesity, including sleep apnea.

Interested in scheduling a sleep study? Contact the Pulmonary Clinic to find out how.

Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.