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Learning About Sleep Apnea

What is it?

Sleep apnea means that breathing stops for short periods during sleep. When you stop breathing or have reduced airflow into your lungs during sleep, you don't sleep well and you can be very tired during the day. The oxygen levels in your blood may go down, and carbon dioxide levels go up. It may lead to other problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

Sleep apnea can range from mild to severe, based on how often breathing stops during sleep. Breathing may stop as few as 5 times an hour (mild apnea) to 30 or more times an hour (severe apnea).

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type. This most often occurs because your airways are blocked or partly blocked. Central sleep apnea is less common. It happens when the brain has trouble controlling breathing. Some people have both types. That's called complex sleep apnea.

What are the symptoms?

There are symptoms of sleep apnea that you may notice and symptoms that others may notice when you're asleep.

Symptoms you may notice include:

  • Feeling extremely sleepy during the day.
  • Feeling unrefreshed or tired after a night's sleep.
  • Problems with memory and concentration, or mood changes.
  • Morning or night headaches.
  • Heartburn or a sour taste in your mouth at night.
  • Swelling of the legs.
  • Getting up often during the night to urinate.
  • A dry mouth or sore throat in the morning.

Your bed partner may notice that you:

  • Have episodes of not breathing.
  • Snore loudly. Almost all people who have sleep apnea snore. But not all people who snore have sleep apnea.
  • Toss and turn during sleep.
  • Have nighttime choking or gasping spells.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will probably do a physical examination and ask about your past health. He or she may also ask you or your bed partner about your snoring and sleep behaviour and how tired you feel during the day.

Your doctor may suggest a sleep study. Sleep studies are a series of tests that look at what happens to the body during sleep. They check for how often you stop breathing or have too little air flowing into your lungs during sleep. They also find out how much oxygen you have in your blood during sleep.

A sleep study may take place in your home. Or it might take place at a sleep centre, where you will spend the night.

How is it treated?

Moderate to severe sleep apnea is often treated with devices that deliver air through a mask to help keep your airways open. The most studied treatments include:

  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). This increases air pressure in your throat. It keeps your airway open when you breathe in. It's the most common device.
  • Bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP). This uses different air pressures when you breathe in and out.
  • Adaptive servo ventilation (ASV). It senses pauses in breathing and adjusts air pressure. It's mostly used for central sleep apnea.

If your tonsils or other tissues are blocking your airway, your doctor may suggest surgery to open the airway.

How can you care for yourself?

You may be able to treat mild sleep apnea by making changes in how you live and the way you sleep. For example, it may help to:

  • Lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Sleep on your side, not your back.
  • Avoid alcohol and medicines such as sedatives before bed.

You may also try an oral breathing device. It helps keep your airways open while you sleep.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

Enter S121 in the search box to learn more about "Learning About Sleep Apnea".

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