Youíve been tired lately. Sure, you fall asleep during your favorite television shows, and once or twice, youíve even caught yourself nodding off in mid-conversation, but that never worried you before. You battle your fatigue when you get behind the wheel of your car by turning up the radio, having another cup of coffee, and maybe a snack. You think that all you need is a good nightís sleep. But, getting more sleep isnít the answer. Your symptoms may be a result of sleep apnea, a potentially life-threatening condition that affects an estimated 12 million Americans.
During a normal sleep cycle, you fall asleep in stages. Your body goes through four sleep stages that begin with drowsiness, advancing to a light sleep, drifting into a deep sleep, and ending in the fourth stage called Rapid Eye Movement (REM). If you have sleep apnea, your body stops breathing for a few seconds during this sleep cycle. Your system signals that there is a lack of oxygen and jolts you awake to kick start your breathing. So, your body has to start the sleep cycle again. This may leave you feeling very tired the next day. You may not even notice or remember that you awoke during the night because it happened so quickly, but in most sleep apnea sufferers, breathing starts and stops several times. Some patients can even experience hundreds of episodes a night.
There are different reasons why breathing may stop during sleep, and those reasons help classify sleep apnea as either:
- Central Sleep Apnea
In individuals suffering from Central Sleep Apnea, the brain does not signal the chest muscles to work during sleep, and breathing stops.
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome (OSAS)
OSAS is the most common type of sleep apnea. Patients with OSAS breathe normally, but the air is momentarily blocked from entering the lungs because the upper airway collapses during sleep.
- Mixed Sleep Apnea
This type of sleep apnea is the most complex to treat. In Mixed Sleep Apnea, the brain periodically fails to trigger breathing, and when the sleeper does try to breathe, he or she canít because the upper airway has collapsed.
During OSAS and Mixed Sleep Apnea, the upper airway collapses. The upper airway is a floppy tube supported by muscles, and it runs from the mouth to the lungs. When you lay down to sleep, your muscles relax. With gravity at work, itís natural that the airway narrows when you lie down, but in some people, it narrows too much. When the person breathes in, the air struggles to get through the narrowed passage and as it squeezes through, the air tube rattles. The noise that is created is what you hear when a person snores. Many sleep apnea sufferers are also snorers.
The airway may also become blocked if you have an abnormally large uvula, tonsils, or tongue. The structure of your jaw and airway, and even an obstruction in the nasal passages, such as nasal polyps, can cause breathing problems during sleep. Fat in the neck can also push on the throat and narrow the airway too much you lie down.
When the airway is blocked and breathing stops during sleep, you are being momentarily choked or asphyxiated, and the sudden drop in oxygen level causes carbon dioxide levels in the blood to rise. The body tries to protect itself from harm by making the heart work harder to move the remaining oxygenated blood through the body. So, your heart rate increases too. As a result, sleep apnea can cause:
The condition is most common in men, individuals who are overweight, or snorers, and the older you are, the greater your chances of becoming affected by sleep apnea.
Symptoms can often go unnoticed for a long time because they are not specific during the day, and at night, the sleeper may not even realize that he or she is waking up to resume breathing. Symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe, and may include:
Daytime sleepiness and fatigue
Dry mouth when you wake up
Sore or dry throat
Frequent nighttime urination
Waking several times during the night
Unexplained heart or respiratory failure
Chest retraction (sunken chest) Ė seen in children suffering from sleep apnea
Excessive perspiring during sleep
Rapid weight gain
Because individuals suffering from sleep apnea usually learn ways to deal with being sleepy during the day, they may not even realize how tired they actually are.
Sleep apnea may be life-threatening if left untreated. You should see your doctor immediately if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms.