What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder and medical condition that (as its name suggests) affects people during the time they sleep. It comes in different forms but consists of a person’s airways getting blocked while they sleep. An estimated 22 million Americans report having some kind of sleeping disorder, and out of those 22 million people, 80% of these people are estimated to have a form of diagnosed or undiagnosed sleep apnea.
People can experience two different kinds of sleep apnea, and they both consist of different airways being blocked during their sleep. One of them is OSA which stands for Obstructive Sleep Apnea. This form of sleep apnea is more of a physical problem that occurs due to soft palate. A person will wake up gasping for air at night and can awake with chest pains and headaches.

The second kind of sleep apnea is called Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) and is less common, but still far too common to be rare. This kind of sleep apnea also affects people in their sleep but isn’t attributed to soft palate, but to the obstruction or restriction the air-ways to the brain itself. A person affected by this type of sleep apnea can also experience headaches, trouble going to sleep, among other consequences. We will show you more in-depth information below.

What Are The Causes of Sleep Apnea?

Many people experience sleep apnea due to their family’s history of having sleep apnea disorder. It is actually hereditary, so if one of your parents has sleep apnea disorder you may be at risk of experiencing at some point throughout your life. Additionally, as mentioned above, 80% of the people who suffer from sleep apnea disorders go undiagnosed; so we suggest talking to your doctor about it and checking whether or not you may have sleep apnea or other sleeping disorders.

Other than it being hereditary, OSA (obstructive sleep apnea) is caused by obstructed airway due to soft palate. But what is the soft palate? This is a part of the human mouth (also present in most mammals) located at the roof of the mouth. It is a part of the upper back portion of a person’s mouth. It is easily distinguished from the “hard palate” since it is much softer and moveable.

So, why does OSA happen because of the soft palate? Well, when a person is sleeping the body always tries to keep the airways clear in order to breathe normally and without problems. But for some people, that task isn’t always easy. The skin of the soft palate becomes an issue and blocks the airways from easily breathing in air. Most times when a person experiences this during sleep he or she either gasps while sleeping in order to get air or wakes up altogether and tries a different position that may facilitate breathing. Though it seems quite terrifying, most of the time the person who suffers from this kind of sleep apnea doesn’t notice it at all. That is why only 20% of the people who actually have OSA are treated for it.

On the other hand, CSA (Central Sleep Apnea) consists of when a person’s brain fails to send signals to the muscles responsible for making the person breathe, thus failing to actually make the person breathe altogether. This kind of sleep apnea is quite dangerous and severe since it is a matter of the brain not doing one of its (most important) tasks. The person suffering from sleep apnea rarely gets enough sleep, since the body usually jumps to wake up when it stops breathing. This can happen numerous times during a person’s sleep cycle, therefore interrupting the sleep cycle and not giving the person enough time to rest properly.

Though these two forms of sleep apnea are different, they cause some of the same ailments, such as loud snoring, difficulty sleeping a.k.a. insomnia, trouble staying awake a.k.a. hypersomnia, a dry mouth in the morning, uncontrollably waking up gasping for air, headaches, irritability, and difficulty focusing and paying attention during the day.

Risks of Sleep Apnea – What Happens if it Goes Untreated?

OSA (obstructive sleep apnea) poses different risks than CSA; meaning that you are more at risk of getting OSA if you are: obese or have a “thick neck”, if you are male (since male subjects are usually much more likely to get OSA than females), if you are a smoker or former smoker, if you are prone to nasal congestion, if you were born with hereditary narrow airways, or if you have a family history of OSA. If it goes untreated you may have problems such as high blood pressure, and/or sleep issues such as insomnia or hypersomnia.

OSA also poses a risk for people with type 2 diabetes because their bodies don’t get enough resting time to produce enough insulin to regulate their blood sugar levels. This type of sleep apnea can also affect people who don’t have type 2 diabetes, making it more probable for them to contract it due to the same issue.

CSA (central sleep apnea) is more of a risk for people who: are middle-aged, are male (for the same reasons as OSA), have had a stroke in their lifetime, or use narcotic medication for sleeping or pain control (for example methadone has been shown to pose a risk of experiencing sleep apnea). If central sleep apnea goes untreated the person is at risk of experiencing a stroke due to lack of oxygen traveling to the brain (due to the brain failing to signal breathing muscles), and also insomnia and hypersomnia due to lack of deep sleep.

CSA can also cause major problems breathing during sleep, thus creating a CO2 buildup in a person’s system which causes major problems including CO2 poisoning, stroke, and even death.

Sleep Apnea Treatments and When to Visit a Doctor

There are a few ways to treat both types of sleep apnea. To treat obstructive sleep apnea, a common solution is to use a CPAP machine. What is a CPAP machine? This machine is a mechanism that consists of 3 parts: a small motor, hoses, and a mask. The motor draws in room temperature air and then pressurizes it. Then, the pressurized air is sent up through the hoses and into the mask (which is attached to the person’s face, covering nose and mouth). The reason the air is pressurized is so that the air can be delivered with just enough force to unblock the person’s airways so they can breathe normally without a problem during their sleep.

If a CPAP machine isn’t something that sounds appealing, or a person can’t use it, there are alternative options they can use. One of them is using a device called a mandibular advancement appliance. This device goes directly into the person’s mouth and shifts the way the jaw rests (pushing the bottom jaw forward), thus opening the airway. The second alternative to a CPAP is checking whether the person’s tonsils are partly responsible for their OSA and removing them.

If you believe you may be experiencing any form of sleep apnea it is highly recommended to seek your doctor’s professional opinion. This will allow you to both get the help you need and get better sleep at night.

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