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Sleep’s Thief: Sleep Apnea

Understanding Sleep Apnea

Hold Your Breath

Imagine you were at the doctor’s office and suddenly stopped breathing for 20 seconds. What would they do? Call an ambulance, most likely. Over 12 million Americans are estimated to have obstructive sleep apnea, which may cause them to stop breathing 10 or more times an hour. Regular disruption of sleep throughout the night can result in dire consequences, ranging from dangerously sleepy driving to higher risks of heart disease and diabetes.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder resulting from pauses in breathing while asleep, which consequently results in ongoing periods of difficulty breathing and sleeping. Dr. Michael Twery, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, says that sleep apnea is often caused by a temporary obstruction to the airway opening at the back of the mouth.

In children, it could be large tonsils; in adults, the tongue.  It could also result from weight gain, as the airway passage narrows because of thickened fat pads.  Muscles which normally keep the airway open and stiff while awake may relax during sleep, which causes the airway to narrow or even close.

Central sleep apnea is a less common condition during which the brain, for unknown reasons, occasionally fails to send signals to the muscles telling them to breathe.

Regardless of the cause, if your breathing becomes very shallow or stops, the oxygen level in your blood decreases. Your brain senses the emergency and takes action by waking you up. It will do whatever it takes to get air into your lungs and restore your breathing.

Loud snoring is caused by trying to force air past an airway obstruction. Interestingly, one of the most typical ways people discover they have sleep apnea is because that their bed partner complains about the noise. Gasping for air may also occur in some people. However, most frightening may be the silence when there is no breathing resulting from apnea.

Content Created/Medically Reviewed by our Expert Doctors
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