What is Sleep Apnea?

By M. Chris Wolf, PH.D.

What is sleep apnea causes, signs and symptoms, is a question many who are suffering with sleepless nights may be asking. Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that affects millions of people. If you find that you are still sleepy in the mornings, have headaches or are irritable and anxious, you may be a victim of sleep apnea. There are many people who have apnea that occurs during sleep for years without it being diagnosed. There are basically two types of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

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Obstructive Sleep Apnea

This is the most common form of apnea disorders. With obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), the person's airway becomes obstructed or collapses while sleeping. When the airway is disturbed it causes breathing to become shallow, labored and there are frequent pauses. This is what causes the loud snoring due to the air trying to escape through the obstructed airway.

Dr. Wolf treats many soldiers who have mild Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and co-morbid Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who have been diagnosed with sleep apnea. Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed in this population. Soldiers do not fit the typical profile of a patient with sleep apnea. Soldiers are not overweight, usually young in their 20's and may or may not snore.

There are differing opinions as to why there is such a high incidence of OSA among active military soldiers and veterans. One common thought has been that obstructive sleep apnea is associated with (PTSD). This signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is common among veterans who have experienced combat. One earlier study by Ross (1989), published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, showed that Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is often disturbed and fragmented in people suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea is rarer and happens when the brain fails to send the correct signals necessary for the breathing muscles while sleeping. These signals go from the brain to the muscles to tell them when it is time to breathe. The result can be deadly because there will be periods of time when you neglect to breathe and if the body does not recover quickly, it may result in death due to the heart stopping.

Who is at risk of Sleep Apnea?

What is sleep apnea caused by? There are a number of factors; however, overweight individuals are highly susceptible to obstructive sleep apnea. People with certain medical conditions or taking various medications may be more susceptible to central sleep apnea. Other people who are at risk are those who snore loudly, people with high blood pressure and people with a narrow air passage.

What are sleep apnea symptoms?

What is sleep apnea can be answered by exploring the primary symptoms of sleep apnea are loud and deep snoring. The person snores through their mouth instead of the nose and their chest severely rises. Their snoring typically stops for several seconds, breathing becomes shallower, the breathing stops and loud snoring will resume. Someone with sleep apnea may suddenly wake up gasping for air. Someone with sleep apnea will frequently have insomnia, mood swings, and memory problems, lack of concentration, dry throat and frequent urination during the night.

This can be a dangerous condition when not properly treated. What is sleep apnea is an important question to discuss with a physician if you suspect you or a loved one may be suffering with the condition. There are serious health risks that can occur if sleep apnea is not treated including heart attack, stroke, irregular heartbeats, and hypertension and in some cases, death.


Important: See Sleep Deprived

Also visit Sleep Derivation: What to do.

What about Sleep Apnea Cures

For more information on this topic consider these sources:

Natural Sleep Made Simple

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.

American Sleep Apnea Association

Mayo Clinic: Sleep Apnea

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