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Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that affects millions of adults and children. Although common, sleep apnea can have serious consequences if left undiagnosed. CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) therapy is the number one standard for treating sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea occurs when a person’s breathing is blocked or partially blocked by collapsed tissues in the throat during sleep. The collapsed tissue blocks air flow causing the affected person to struggle to breathe, stopping the body from reaching a restful sleep. Sleep apnea can range from mild, moderate, to severe; depending on the level of restricted air flow and the number of times each hour the person’s breathing stops or slows.
There are two types of sleep apnea, Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and Central sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the result of blocked airflow during sleep, such as from narrowed airways due to collapsed tissues. A common contributing factor of OSA is obesity.
Central sleep apnea results from a problem with how the brain signals the breathing muscles. This type of apnea can occur with conditions such as heart failure, brain tumors, brain infections, and stroke.
One of the most common signs of obstructive sleep apnea is loud and excessive snoring. Snoring may also be accompanied by choking or gasping for air during sleep. Excessive daytime sleepiness may result from sleep apnea due to the body’s inability to get a restful sleep. Waking up unrefreshed, feeling tired and having trouble concentrating are also common symptoms you may notice. Others signs and symptoms of sleep apnea include: morning or night headaches, memory or learning problems and inability to concentrate, feeling irritable, depressed, or having mood swings or personality changes, excessive sweating during sleep, waking up frequently to urinate, nighttime heartburn or sour taste in mouth, dry mouth or sore throat when you wake up, swelling of the legs, and chest pains during sleep.
The first step to diagnosing sleep apnea is for your primary care physician to review and evaluate your sleep apnea symptoms and decide whether a sleep study is needed. Your doctor might also perform a physical exam to check for an enlarged uvula or soft palate, common signs that sleep apnea is present.
After your initial exam with your doctor, you will participate in a sleep study where tests are performed that measure how well you sleep and how your body responds to sleep problems. Sensors are attached to the scalp, face, chest, limbs, and fingers to gather data. The testing procedure as a whole is known as Polysomnography, which records the electrical activity of your brain, eye movement, muscle activity, heart rate, airflow through your nose and mouth, and blood oxygen levels.
Polysomnography tests are often done at sleep centers or sleep labs. The test is painless, you are able to wear your own clothes, and the testing room is more like your bedroom than a hospital room.
Once the sleep study is complete, a sleep specialist will review the results of the polysomnography to determine if you have sleep apnea and how severe it is.
If it is determined that you do have sleep apnea, your sleep specialist will recommend another sleep study to find the best setting for you on a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. CPAPs are the most common treatment for sleep apnea. A CPAP keeps your airway open during sleep through the use of mild positive air pressure.