Obstructive Sleep Apnea

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Snoring can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea, a potentially serious medical disorder in which a blocked airway causes breathing to stop periodically throughout the night. These pauses in breathing may last anywhere from a few seconds to more than a minute, and can occur hundreds of times a night. When normal breathing resumes, it may be accompanied by a snort or gasp.

Cessations in breathing rarely awaken the individual, and sleep apnea isn’t something a doctor can normally detect during a routine physical examination.

Signs of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

The most obvious sign of obstructive sleep apnea is loud, chronic snoring. Gaps in breathing, followed by choking or gasping, are common. Because you are sleep when these symptoms occur, you probably won’t ever be aware of them unless a partner points them out. Because breathing pauses prevent you from entering deep, restorative REM sleep, you are likely to experience daytime drowsiness and fatigue. As your sleep deficit builds, you may find it increasingly difficult to stay awake while working, driving, watching television, etc. Other symptoms frequently experienced include dry mouth, sore throat, and headache upon awakening; frequent urination during the night; memory and concentration problems; irritability; depression and mood swings.

Obstructive sleep apnea affects 18 million Americans. Those most at risk are overweight, male and over the age of 40. If the condition is left untreated it can lead to serious health problems such as heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes. Fatigue associated with sleep apnea also increases the odds of having an automobile or workplace accident.

Living With Sleep Apnea

In order to diagnose obstructive sleep apnea, you’ll have to visit your doctor, who may schedule an overnight sleep study. Once a diagnosis is made, a treatment plan will be established.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is the most popular method of treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. Patients sleep with a mask hooked up to a machine that delivers continuous bursts of air through the night; this keeps the airway from closing and enables normal breathing. Less severe cases may respond to lifestyle modifications (losing weight, sleeping on your side instead of your back, quitting smoking). Oral appliances and nasal breathing strips might also help. A number of surgical procedures are available to those who cannot tolerate CPAP therapy.