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The alarming thing about sleep apnea is that while you are sleeping peacefully, you stop breathing. Still more alarming, is that you may not even be aware of this. All you will experience is increasing fatigue and irritability and you wont know why.
The word "apnea" is Greek for "without breath".
Sleep apnea can interrupt sleep hundreds of times during the course of the night and for periods of up to a minute or longer. All you will know is that you no longer feel rested after a night's sleep. No matter how early you get to bed, even with a full eight hours 'sleep' all you will notice is that you wake exhausted and jaded.
Awareness of this condition is growing as studies show that its incidence is as common as adult diabetes, affecting more than 12 million Americans according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
There are three different kinds of sleep apnea with obstructive sleep apnea being by far the most common. Caused by an actual obstruction in the upper air airway or throat where the soft tissue collapses and closes during sleep OSA is like placing your hand over the suction device on a vacuum cleaner. It stops the breath even though the breathing mechanism is still functioning. Oxygen levels drop in the blood and this alerts the brain to activate waking and the automatic breathing reflex.
Central sleep apnea is a much more rare condition where the brain itself fails to signal the muscles to breathe. The malfunction is happening on a far more profound level.
Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of OSA and CSA normally triggered by the latter and turning into the former. MSA normally improves with the same treatment that is used for obstructive sleep apnea.
Some people are more at risk for this mysterious sleep disorder than others. Men who are overweight and over the age of forty seem to be more susceptible, though children, women and people are any age can suffer from it.
If you struggle with the consistent side effects of fragmented and poor quality sleep it is possible that you may have this condition. But how can you know? If you share a bed then the information your partner is able to tell you will be helpful feedback. He or she is going to be the first one to know about your nocturnal habits.
People with sleep apnea often snore loudly and sporadically. Episodes of loud snoring will be followed by uncanny periods of absolute silence possibly indicating an apnea event. The silence will be followed by slightly distressed sounds like groaning and gasping interspersed with resumed snoring.
Apnea events normally trigger sporadic movement as well so that partners of people with sleep apnea may be almost as sleep deprived as the ones with the condition.
Once you have confirmation from your partner that your behavior suggests the possibility of sleep apnea the next step is to see a medical professional. Most regular doctors are not as experienced as they could be on the subject of sleep disorders. Some actively refuse to take it seriously. A better route to the right kind of help would be to contact one of the many sleep disorder foundations that can be found online. A local sleep specialist or local sleep disorder center are also possibilities.
Currently there is only one way to diagnose sleep apnea: spending the night in a sleep lab undergoing a polysomnogram sleep study.
There are several treatments for obstructive sleep apnea and the option that works for you will be dependent on the severity of your particular case.
Positional therapy works with the fact of gravity and the role it plays in obstructional sleep apnea. Sleeping on the back aggravates the effects of gravity so attempts are made to control the position of the body during sleep so that the supine position is avoided. These methods vary from a tennis ball affixed to the back of the nightgown to a special FDA approved pillow and positional alarms that may just fragment sleep almost as much as the condition they are meant to prevent.
OSA can be weight related so weight loss may lead to an improvement of the condition. Because weight loss is not immediate it would be advisable to use other methods in the interim.
Avoiding alcohol and other CNS depressants like sedatives, painkillers and muscle relaxants may improve the condition. Medications like these have a significant effect on the muscles of the airway. They may also reduce the respiratory brain function that leads to sleep apnea.
Several oral appliances exist that approach the problem from a more mechanical aspect. Certain devices keep the airway open by pushing out the lower jaw, preventing the tongue from blocking the airway or a combination of both mechanisms.
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