Imagine if you suddenly stopped breathing several times an hour over the course of a normal workday. That's what happens every night for people with sleep apnea, a condition affecting at least 18 million Americans.
Sleep apneais the result of a collapsed airway.
When we sleep, it's normal to lose some of the muscle tone that stiffens our airway. "If you’re not prone to apnea, the muscles along the airway may be less stiff but with minor consequences, such as mild snoring," explains Dr. David Rapoport, director of sleep medicine at New York University’s School of Medicine. "When the collapse becomes more severe, it blocks airflow—and that's what an apnea is." It's not uncommon for people with severe apnea to have regular episodes every night in which they stop breathing for an entire minute.
Snoring is no laughing matter.
Approximately 50 percent of the country snores, and that's not even counting the people who watch C-SPAN (OK, maybe it's a little funny sometimes). Estimates of how many people have apnea swing from 5 percent of the population under the most stringent guidelines (15 or more severe episodes per hour, with severe air blockage) to 20 percent.
Those who have very loud snoring interspersed with gasps and snorts may have sleep apnea. Still, it’s a mistake to self-diagnose or be diagnosed by a sleep-deprived bedmate. See a doctor if you have the telltale signs heard in this public service announcement.
Being overweight does not cause apnea but it puts you at greater risk.
Apnea is multifactorial, meaning that several traits contribute to susceptibility. "People with apnea are probably genetically predisposed to it," says Dr. Rapoport, "and then they have overt symptoms when the risk factors add up." Weight appears to be the biggest risk factor, followed by age, anatomy (which is why apnea’s believed to be genetic), male gender and post-menopausal women.
As obesity reaches epidemic proportions across all age groups in our country, many more instances of pediatric apnea are being diagnosed.
Losing sleep is the least of it.
Apnea can cause severe sleep disruption, waking the apneac every 30 to 60 seconds. Even in milder cases, partially obstructed breathing (hypopnea) can prevent someone from going into deeper stages of sleep. During waking hours, anyone who hasn't slept well is at increased risk for headaches, memory loss, mental fogginess or low-grade depression—not to mention driving into a tree.
There's now increasing evidence that sleep apnea is associated with long-term cardiovascular disease, resulting in heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and even death. Dr. Rapoport clarifies, "Apnea won't kill you in one day by choking you, but long term, by affecting your cardiovascular risk profile, the same way cholesterol and certain other things do."
The leading treatment option is very effective.
The first line of defense against apnea is CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure), a pneumatic device that keeps the airway tube stiff by maintaining air pressure. The downside is that it requires wearing a mask to bed, but the upside is significant: CPAP is effective for nearly 100 percent of the patients who use it. There are dozens of mask models available, and it may take some trial and error to find a comfortable one.
Other treatment options include oral devices and surgical procedures based on removing soft tissue in the back of the throat and tongue to open the airway. UPPP surgery, also known as UP3 or uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (try saying that with part of your tongue removed), has been used most widely. Exhaust your other options first: UP3 can be an expensive, painful procedure and the success rate is low—around 25 percent, according to Dr. Rapoport.
Find more on MSN Health & Fitness:
- Sleepwalking Into Trouble
- Snooze Alarm: You Need Your Sleep
- Finding the Cause of Sleep Disorders
- Sleep Disorders Message Board
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