Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder. The patient stops breathing repeatedly while asleep. Sleep apnea causes chronic sleep deprivation because the sleep cycle is repeatedly disrupted, and can affect many body processes, including metabolism. Many people who suffer from sleep apnea also have weight problems. Sleep apnea may be obstructive -- related to throat muscles relaxing and blocking the airway -- central, which occurs when the brain doesn't send proper signals to breathing muscles, or a combination of the two.
The most common symptom of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is loud snoring. People who wake abruptly and are short of breath are more likely to have central sleep apnea. Both obstructive and central sleep apnea can cause the breathing to stop, which may be witnessed by a bed partner. Morning headache, a dry mouth or sore throat, insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness and problems concentrating are also typical symptoms. People who have sleep apnea may be irritable due to lack of sleep.
In addition to symptoms, sleep apnea is usually diagnosed with a test called nocturnal polysomnography. The patient spends the night in a sleep lab hooked to equipment that monitors the heart rate and rhythm, lung and brain activity, breathing patterns, arm and leg movements, as well as blood oxygen levels. A portable monitor which measures heart rate, blood oxygen, airflow and breathing patterns can be used at home. In some cases, home results should be confirmed by polysomnography.
Depending on the cause of the sleep apnea and its severity, treatment may vary. For some patients, simply losing weight, treating allergies or quitting smoking resolves the problem. A dental appliance can also be helpful for patients with OSA. In more severe cases, a special machine called a CPAP delivers oxygen under pressure through a mask, which keeps the airways open. Other devices can also help keep airways open and are less cumbersome than CPAP. Surgery can help if the problem is due to obstructions like tonsils or a deviated bone in the nose. Since insomnia is a common feature of sleep apnea, it must also be treated.