Sleep apnea is a condition where sleep repeatedly stops and restarts throughout the night. It impacts an estimated 22 million Americans and remains undiagnosed in many instances.
There are two primary forms of sleep apnea, obstructive and central. Some people experience a combination of the two, also known as complex sleep apnea syndrome.
Due to the constant cycle of sleep stopping and restarting, those who live with sleep apnea tend to have poor quality sleep. Over time, this can lead to headaches, difficulty concentrating, mood changes, and decreased libido.
To diagnose sleep apnea, your doctor will need to rule out other underlying medical conditions. This will likely require a medical history, physical exam, and sleep study.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles of the throat relax and block the airway. The blockage causes the body’s oxygen levels to decrease, prompting the body to wake itself up and restart the oxygen supply.
This type of sleep apnea is associated with snoring, as the blockage of the throat can cause vibrations and sounds as it stops and starts.
A variety of oral appliances can help treat obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea masks and mouthguards prevent the soft tissues at the back of the throat from relaxing, allowing the airway to remain open, leaving sufficient room for air to pass through.
Another treatment option is the continuous positive airway pressure therapy (CPAP) machine, a machine consisting of a hose and mask. By creating the optimal air pressure in the airway, a CPAP machine prevents the airway from collapsing when you breathe in.
The final treatment option for obstructive sleep apnea is surgery. The goal of surgery for those with sleep apnea is similar to that of the oral appliances and CPAP machine—opening up the airway and maintaining airflow.
Central Sleep Apnea
Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain sends incorrect signals to the muscles required for breathing. When an error in these signals occurs, the muscles don’t function normally, and breathing can stop.
For central sleep apnea, doctors often recommend using a CPAP machine or prescribe medications. Lifestyle changes, such as weight loss, can also help treat the condition.