Sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing is severely restricted during sleep, and it leads to fatigue that can greatly reduce the sufferer's quality of life.
Consider Ken. He chronically complains about being tired. He began having severe fatigue when he was in his early thirties. Up to that time, he had been a successful business owner. Since that time, however, he has lost his business and can't keep a job for more than a month. Of the numerous jobs he has held, nearly all have resulted in him getting fired for "laziness."
Employers see his five to ten mini-naps each day as evidence he doesn't care about his job. His being very overweight and having other health conditions have led several doctors to misdiagnose the reason for his sleepiness. After several years and countless trips to different doctors who gave differing diagnoses, he recently went to a sleep disorders clinic, where they correctly diagnosed his condition as sleep apnea.
Ken is one of an estimated 18 million Americans, mostly overweight, middle-aged men, who suffer from sleep apnea, a potentially life-threatening disorder that causes a person to stop breathing during sleep. The word apnea means "without breath." The most common form of sleep apnea is called obstructive sleep apnea. Here's how it happens.
In a person with obstructive sleep apnea, the throat muscles and tongue relax during sleep, and the tongue and uvula (the small dangling tissue at the back of the throat) sag and block the airway. Excess fatty tissue in the neck aggravates this by reducing the size of the airway, allowing it to collapse or be sucked closed. As a result, breathing ceases or is significantly reduced for at least a few seconds and, in some cases, for as much as a few minutes at a time.
When breathing stops or becomes insufficient, it triggers a signal to the brain to jump-start the breathing again. But to do this, the brain has to awaken the body from deep sleep. The signal that the jump-start has kicked in is usually a loud snort and/or gasp.
This impairment of breathing can occur up to 30 times an hour throughout the night. And each time, the person wakes briefly before falling back asleep. Imagine what you would feel like in the morning if you woke up 200 or more times during the course of one night! A "walking zombie" perhaps? How about if this happened every night? It would be a struggle just to perform basic daily tasks. Not only do people with sleep apnea struggle with constant fatigue, but they are also at greater risk for accidents, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and other health conditions.
Sometimes apnea can be cured with weight loss or reduced by sleeping on one's side. Other treatments include dental devices, surgery, and a special mask worn at night to keep the airways open. If you suspect you have sleep apnea, the starting point for diagnosing it would be to visit a sleep clinic.
If, instead of breifly waking up at night, you briefly fall asleep during the day, you may have narcolepsy. Find out about this disorder on the next page.
Not all people with serious sleep apnea completely quit breathing, either. Typically, though, very loud snoring, snorting, and gasping or otherwise struggling to breathe are signs of sleep apnea. Snoring without apnea is not a health threat to the snorer, but it may be a very real problem for a bed-mate who may be sleep-deprived because of the constant nocturnal buzz saw. Snoring is most likely to occur when the sleeper is lying faceup.
A simple way to solve the problem is to sew a pocket into the back of the snorer's bedclothes. Before going to bed, slip a tennis ball in the pocket. This lump will gently remind the person to stay off their back while sleeping. There are also mouth devices and surgical procedures that can alleviate snoring.
For more information on how to get a good night's sleep, see:
- How Sleep Works
- Causes of Insomnia
- How to Fall Asleep
- Sleep Medications
- Natural Sleep Aids
- How to Help A Child Who Is Having Trouble Falling Asleep
- Is Lack of Sleep Making Me Fat?
- Is Science Phasing Out Sleep?