What is Sleep Apnea?

snoringSleep apnea is a sleeping disorder. Apnea is a Greek word that means “no breath”.

When you sleep at night, most of the muscles in your body relax, including those in the upper airways (i.e. throat and nasal cavity). When these tissues come so close as to narrow the airway, snoring results. When they completely close, obstructive sleep apnea happens.

During this episode, the lungs try to suck in air with no success. This causes a person to wake up gasping for breath. This is not a one-time thing and thus the person suffering from apnea may be forced to wake up several times (even dozens or hundreds of times) during the night. Often the sufferer won’t even remember these episodes.

If gone untreated, sleep apnea can be fatal. This is due to the body being forced to constantly “wake up” to gasp for breath. Not only does this result in constant lack of sleep, it is also not so good for those with heart conditions.

Causes of sleep apnea

  1. Being overweight: An increase in upper airway tissues narrows down the air passage and this limits the flow of air.
  2. Smoking: Nicotine and tar found in cigarettes destroy the mucous lining in the throat. The mucous protects the throat against bacteria. With no protection, the throat may become infected and swelling develops. The swelling causes narrowing of the airway.
  3. Taking alcohol before going to bed: Alcohol stimulates the body for longer periods. When a person goes to bed high, his/her muscles fail to relax. This causes unnecessary muscle expansion that leads to narrowing of the air passage.
  4. Allergies and Flu: Excess mucous is secreted when suffering from flu. This mucous creates blockage in the airway and flow movement of air is hindered which leads to apnea.
  5. Genetic makeup: People with narrow necks are more prone to sleep apnea. Having a narrow upper jaw may also contribute to sleep apnea because when the upper jaw relaxes at night, the neighboring tissues also do the same. Since the upper jaw is already narrow, apnea happens.
  6. Central sleep apnea: This is a less common disorder, where the brain mismanages the signals for you to breathe while sleeping. This usually happens in conjunction with other medical disorders.

Symptoms of Sleep apnea.

  1. Feeling sleepy during the day: this happens because a person’s last night sleep was disturbed by having to waking up regularly to gasp for breath.
  2. Snoring: this is caused by vibration of the upper airways as they come excessively close.
  3. Morning headaches: this may be as a result of the minimal oxygen flowing in the head at night.
  4. Emotional imbalances: When you sleep a lot of activity takes place. For example: the body muscles relax and the body also releases chemicals to heal wounds. When a person is sleep deprived, the body fails to regroup resulting to mood swings, anger and even being irritable.

Treatment for sleep apnea

Treatment falls into two categories:

  1. Lifestyle changes treatment.
  2. Medical treatment.

Lifestyle changes treatment

  1. Quit smoking.
  2. Lose weight. This is especially important if sleep apnea develops after one gains weight.
  3. Avoid taking alcohol before going to bed.
  4. Sleep on your side: when you sleep on your back, airway tissues come close and narrowing happens.

Medical Treatments

There are three forms of treatment for sleep apnea:

  1. CPAP Machines.
  2. Oral Appliances.
  3. Surgery.

CPAP Machines.

cpap maskThis is the most effective treatment for sleep apnea. CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure.

This is a machine that helps a person breathe more easily at night by complimenting the normal breathing process.

The machine’s air pressure replaces those periods a person has to wake up to gasp for air.

The CPAP machine has 3 main components:

  1. A mask: This is strapped across to cover your nose and mouth.
  2. A tube: Air from the CPAP machine enters your body through this channel.
  3. The CPAP device: a lightweight machine placed besides your bed. It has controls that a person can use to regulate air pressure depending on the severity of sleep apnea.

The machine emits minimal sound which is appropriate at night.

Oral Appliances.

These appliances are also called dental devices. The appliances appeal to those people who find a CPAP machine very uncomfortable.

One common oral appliance is called MAD (Mandibular Advancement Device). A dentist pulls the lower jaw forward and then lowers it further than normal so that the upper airway remains intact during the muscle relaxation at night.


This is often a last resort to treating sleep apnea. A person is often advised to seek a second or even third opinion.

The main purpose surgery is done is to increase the width of the upper airway.

It is worth mentioning that unlike other surgeries meant to repair an anatomical discrepancy, sleep apnea surgery does not guarantee a 100% eradication of sleep apnea. Recurrence of sleep apnea has also been reported.

Anti-snoring devices are not effective treatment for sleep apnea. This is because they only help reduce the snoring sound. They do not provide for assistive air like the CPAP machines do, since snoring is not accompanied by lack of breathing.

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