Sleep Apnea

by Matthew Hendricks

"Apnea" comes from Greek meaning "without breath".  There are two types of sleep apnea:

- Obstructive sleep apnea and

- Central sleep apnea

People suffering from obstructive sleep apnea are usually overweight and fat or have thick neck muscles, for example bodybuilders, or it may be caused by an upper respiratory infection that causes nasal congestion, along with swelling of the throat, or tonsillitis that temporarily produces very enlarged tonsils. The Epstein-Barr virus, for example, is known to be able to dramatically increase the size of lymphoid tissue during acute infection, and obstructive sleep apnea is fairly common in acute cases of severe infectious mononucleosis.

Since the muscle tone of the body ordinarily relaxes during sleep, and since, at the level of the throat, the human airway is composed of walls of soft tissue, which can collapse, it is easy to understand how breathing can be obstructed during sleep. Although a very low level of obstructive sleep apnea is considered to be within the bounds of normal sleep, and many individuals experience episodes of obstructive sleep apnea at some point in life, a much smaller percentage of people are afflicted with chronic, severe obstructive sleep apnea.

The level of oxygen in the blood drops and heartbeat and blood pressure rise, because the heart has to work harder to circulate the blood.  The heartbeat is uneven and may even stop beating for some seconds.  This causes the brain to send out emergency signals, and eventually the sufferer will awake to breathe.  Even if you don't wake up completely, you still go into a lighter sleep and the muscles in the upper airway get the strength needed to open up the airway.  Swallowing and coughing may occur while the person is breathing. 

If it's somebody who snores, typically the snoring gets worse and louder until the person stops breathing, and then suddenly awakens completely or just halfway from this suffocation.  After a short while he starts snoring again and the cycle coninues. 

Usually the sufferer of this condition doesn't realize that he is suffering from obstructive sleep apnea, and it's usually his partner or other person who observes him while he sleeps. 

Central sleep apnea is caused by the brain not controlling the respiratory organs correctly.  The rib muscles and diaphragm may stop working. 

Sleep apnea causes a shortage of oxygen to the brain and other organs, which may lead to death, tiredness during the day, depression, forgetfulness, heart attacks and other. 

A polysomnograph or home oximetry may be used to diagnose sleep apnea.  Among many other things these will test for levels of oxygen and breathing tempo while you sleep.   

Treatment depends on the cause, but most importantly the focus is to keep the airway open during sleep.   

Obese people or people with enlarged adenoids or abnormally soft, tissue may find relief by simply having the obstructing tissue removed. 

A Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Machine may be used;  with this a mask is worn that fits onto the face that keeps the air pressure in the mask and respiratory airway higher than that of the environment the person is in, therefore the pressure pushes the airway open.

Heavy users of alcohol or sleeping pills should realize that these promote sleep apnea by relaxing the muscles that should keep the airways open.