Health Checkup: Restless Nights

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What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. People with sleep apnea stop breathing for 10-30 seconds at a time while they are sleeping. These pauses in breathing can happen over a hundred times during a night’s sleep, and result in your waking up from a deep sleep throughout the night.

There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the more common of the two, and occurs in roughly 9 out of 10 people that have the condition. Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by soft tissue in the back of the throat that collapses and blocks the airway. In order to resume breathing, the brain will wake up the sleeper, making for a fragmented night of sleep.

Sleep apnea is more common than one thinks, affecting more than 12 million in the United States and Canada. It is seen more often in men than women, people who are overweight and over age 40, but it can affect anyone at any age, even children.

How does one know that they may have sleep apnea, and is it dangerous?

Your spouse may be the first to notice the symptoms which include loud snoring, long pauses in breathing and sudden awakenings. You feel tired throughout the day, and you may fall asleep at work or while driving. Left untreated sleep apnea can be very dangerous, increasing not only the possibility of accidents due to tiredness but also the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.

What can you do to help stop or reduce the severity of your sleep apnea?

1. If you are overweight, lose weight.

2. Try to reduce your use of alcohol, and don’t have a drink late in the evening. Also, stop taking sleep medicines. These relax the muscles in the back of your throat, making it more difficult to breath.

3. If you smoke, try to quit.

4. Sleep on your side instead of on your back.

If you or your spouse feel that the steps above are not helping, then see your doctor, who may refer you to a specialist. Treatment may include:

1. Dental devices that move your jaw forward, making breathing easier at night.

2. CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) is a special mask you wear over your nose or over your nose and mouth that keeps your airway open by adding pressure to the air you breathe. It helps most people with sleep apnea.

3. In a few cases, surgery is needed to remove tonsils or extra tissue from the throat.