Sleep apnea is the most common sleep disorder that affects millions of men, women, and children but is often undiagnosed, despite the potentially serious consequences of the disorder. It is estimated that at least ten million Americans have unrecognized sleep apnea.
It occurs when tissues in the throat collapse and block the flow of air in and out of the lungs during sleep. There is no airflow despite efforts to breathe. People with sleep apnea struggle to breathe again and again, making restful sleep impossible. The lack of restful sleep affects daytime alertness and functioning. During both night and day, a person with sleep apnea experiences a decrease in his or her quality of life. However, sleep apnea is a treatable disorder.
What it means
"Apnea" is a Greek word meaning "without breath"; those with sleep apnea literally stop breathing in their sleep. An apnea is clinically defined in adults as a cessation of breath that lasts at least ten seconds and in children as a cessation of breath that lasts the equivalent of two-and-a-half missed breaths. With each apnea, the oxygen level in the bloodstream typically drops.
The brain receives a signal to arouse the person from sleep in order to resume breathing, but consequently sleep is extremely fragmented and of poor quality. People with untreated sleep apnea are generally not even aware of the awakenings but only of being sleepy during the day.
They may, however, realize that they snore or gasp for air during sleep. Loud snoring punctuated with periods of silence (the apneas) is typical but not always present, especially with children.
Consequences of untreated sleep apnea include high blood pressure and other cardiovascular disease, and weight gain. People with untreated sleep apnea may also complain of falling asleep inappropriately, morning headaches, memory problems, feelings of depression, reflux, nocturia (a need to use the bathroom frequently at night), and impotence. Children with untreated apnea may be hyperactive. Untreated sleep apnea, like sleep deprivation, may be responsible for job impairment and motor vehicle accidents. Apnea is a concern with certain medications and general anesthesia.
Risk factors for sleep apnea include a family history of sleep apnea, excess weight, a large neck, a recessed chin, male sex, abnormalities in the structure of the upper airway, ethnicity (African Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Mexicans), smoking, and alcohol use. Yet sleep apnea can affect both males and females, including children of all ages, and any weight.