There are three different types of sleep apnea; central, mixed and most commonly, obstructive. Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by obstruction of the airway and is characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. Where apnea is literally defined as “without breath”, an individual with obstructive sleep apnea has episodes that can last long enough that one or more breaths are missed, which occurs repeatedly throughout sleep.
Breathing is interrupted by a physical block to airflow, despite the effort to breathe. Because the individual is asleep during these occurrences, they are rarely aware of having difficulty breathing, even upon awakening. Therefore, obstructive sleep apnea is usually recognized as a problem by others witnessing the individual during these episodes. Thus sufferers, not aware of their condition, may become conditioned to the symptoms associated with obstructive sleep apnea.
Currently, of the 40 million Americans who suffer from a sleep disorder, half of them suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, whereas the majority remains undiagnosed. Basically, obstructive sleep apnea is caused by a collapse of soft tissue in the rear of the throat creating a temporary blockage in the airway. This means that the individual suffering from this disorder can stop breathing anywhere from 10 seconds up to 3 minutes at a time, recurring up to 100 times an hour, though this is in the most severe case.
So what happens when you stop breathing while you sleep? The oxygen level in your blood falls which can put a strain on your heart and lungs. This causes your brain to notice this drop and sends a signal to your body that something is wrong and to resume breathing. This action will cause you to wake up, but is usually unnoticed. If you experience this often, here’s where the problem worsens; your body becomes unable to fall into a deep sleep, often referred to as REM sleep, which is essential for your overall well-being.
If you do suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, you may wake up with headaches and feelings of overbearing sleepiness as a result from the decreased oxygen during sleep. There are more serious effects of obstructive sleep apnea, though; high blood pressure, heart complications, diabetes and stroke. It can also lead to depression, irritability, decreased interest in sex, and lack of concentration.
Click here for informational videos on sleep apnea, provided by the American Sleep Apnea Association.