Sleep Apnea

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

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what is obstructive sleep apnea

When you fall asleep and try to breathe, but can’t take in any air, this is called obstructive sleep apnea.

It is one of the three major types of sleep related apnea; the other two being central and complex.

It is becoming more and more common in the Western world. Treatment and recovery for it can be easy, or complicated by the presence of other conditions.

What causes it?

Understanding the causes for obstructive sleep apnea can be difficult because it is closely associated with many chronic conditions from Alzheimer’s to depression.

There are some definite physical causes, such as abnormal growths in the airways and allergic reactions, but for most people with the disorder the cause is directly related to lifestyle.

Being overweight and out of shape are the most common causes of obstructive sleep apnea.

Unfortunately, many of the common chronic conditions either contribute to problems with weight management and exercise, or the medications that treat them may cause restricted mobility and weight gain.

Who is at risk for obstructive sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea can affect anyone at any age. The single most common denominator among those with the issue is being overweight.

Some people may also have abnormal growths in their air passageways that upon lying down cause the passageway to restrict, but this is not very common.

Many of the chronic conditions associated with obstructive sleep apnea come from their impact on reducing a person’s ability to manage a healthy weight and to exercise.

What symptoms are associated withobstructive sleep apnea?

The two most common symptoms associated with obstructive sleep apnea are snoring and choking during sleep. This may or may not wake up the person.

Often they do wake up, but they fall asleep very quickly and are unaware that they have stopped breathing.

This is why it is also important to know how to look for the symptoms that occur when you are awake.

In adults, they are –

  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Moodiness
  • Hypertension
  • Anxiety
  • Unexplained anger outbursts
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Blurred vision
  • Confusion or loss of concentration
  • Fatigue

Children are just as susceptible to obstructive sleep apnea as adults; their daytime symptoms may look very different.

  • Loss of bladder control
  • Bed wetting
  • Difficulty in concentration
  • Social withdrawal
  • Fatigue
  • Outbursts (crying, anger)
  • Sadness
  • Nausea and headache

In children sleep deprivation most often causes digestive disturbances that can lead to a kind of reflux or chronic nausea.

They are also more prone to headaches, colds and flu. Adults are also more likely to get sick more often.

One of the most powerful effects of sleep deprivation on the body is the suppression of the immune system.

How do they test for obstructive sleep apnea?

When testing for the different types of sleep apnea the procedures used are identical. First, your physician will conduct a thorough physical exam including a variety of blood test.

They will also take a complete medical history so as to rule out any other conditions. If it still looks like you may be suffering from obstructive sleep apnea, the next step is testing at a sleep lab. This test takes a night and a day.

You will sleep overnight in the lab while connected to a variety of monitors that will track and record your brain’s activity and your breathing pattern.

During the day you will do what is known as a sleep latency test, which measures your ability to fall asleep when you should be awake.

With obstructive sleep apnea one of the clues they are looking for is whether you have interrupted breathing, but are still struggling to breathe.

This is very different from central sleep apnea wherein the message to breathe is never received by the muscles involved.

With obstructive sleep apnea your muscles are working to breath, but the passageway is obstructed.

How can obstructive sleep apnea affect your life?

Sleep deprivation does affect your life, but sleep deprivation can also cause changes to how your brain works.

The chronic pattern of disrupted sleep can lead to everything from accelerated skin aging to weight gain, mood swings to hallucinations, loss of concentration to difficulty in maintaining relationships, as well as increased fatigue and a suppressed immune system.

In children it can manifest as anger outbursts, withdrawal, night terrors and bed wetting. Both adults and children are at risk for developing mood disorders and clinical depression as well.

What are the treatments for obstructive sleep apnea?

Many people associate the use of CPAP and VPAP machines with the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea.

These machines are commonly prescribed, but they are not commonly used in the way they are intended.

These machines are a type of positive air pressure device that force the airways to stay open so breathing can occur.

They are meant to be used as an interim step to allow for safety and increased comfort while the underlying causes of the obstructive sleep apnea are addressed. Very often, people and physicians use the CPAP machines as a permanent treatment.

In only rare instances, where the person may be incapable of following through on other aspects of treatment, or the severity of the underlying conditions prevents effective lifestyle change or treatment, is the use of a positive air pressure machine (PAP) recommended as a daily and permanent form of treatment.

They are meant to be temporary, even with children. While an infant or child may need to use the machine longer than an adult, it is also expected that it is not a permanent solution.

All apnea types can be resolved with the use of surgery (if required), lifestyle changes and the proper management of any underlying conditions.

How can you reduce your risk for obstructive sleep apnea?

In both children and adults the most common cause of obstructive sleep apnea is being overweight.

You can reduce your risk for developing this condition by making sure that you eat right, exercise and maintain a healthy weight and waist circumference.

There are also some other common factors – such as allergies – that can be remedied or alleviated with the use of medications, air purifiers, humidifiers and a change in diet as well.

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