What is it? Obstructive sleep apnea is the temporary cessation of breathing due to the blockage of the upper airways during sleep. These brief obstructions result in many sleep interruptions each hour, which dramatically affects the quality of sleep. Since these awakenings are rarely remembered, sleep apnea sufferers are unaware of the source of their symptoms: daytime drowsiness, increased irritability or depression, decreased concentration and work productivity and even an increased number of traffic accidents. In fact, the excessive daytime drowsiness often is mistaken for narcolepsy. Loud, consistent snoring is a hallmark of obstructive sleep apnea.
How common is it? Sleep apnea is suffered by about 4% of men and about 2% of women.
What's the treatment? Overweight sufferers of obstructive sleep apnea benefit from weight loss. Avoidance of alcohol, narcotics and sedatives, which increase OSA incidence. Some patients respond to bedtime doses of protriptyline, a tricyclic antidepressant, and several other prescription medications. For most, however, other measures are needed. These include:
- Position alarms, which sound if the person remains on his back (the position in which most apnea incidents occur) for more than 15 seconds. These and sewing tennis balls into the back of sleep shirts to prevent sleeping on the back are used.
- Dental appliances that shift the jaw forward, expanding the airway.
- Surgery to repair upper airway (tonsillectomy, adenoidectomy, or a resectioning of the uvula and soft palate).
- Nasal Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), a device that delivers a stream of air through a mask worn over the nose during sleep.