Apnea is the medical term used to describe slowed or stopped breathing. Apnea can affect people of all ages, and the cause depends on the type of apnea you have.
Apnea usually occurs while you are sleeping. For this reason, it is called sleep apnea. Usually, sleep apnea is treatable with medication and lifestyle changes. Occasionally, however, surgery is needed.
Untreated apnea can also lead to heart and brain problems due to a lack of oxygen.
Apnea occurs when the airways become blocked or when the brain fails to send a signal to breathe. The cause of your apnea is directly related to the type of apnea you have.
Obstructive apnea occurs when there is an obstruction in the airways preventing proper breathing. One of the main causes of obstructive apnea is enlarged tonsils.
Central apnea occurs when the area of the brain that facilitates breathing doesn’t function properly. According to Kids Health, this form of apnea is most commonly seen in immature babies, due to improper development of this area of their brain.
Mixed apnea is a mixture of both obstructive and central apnea. This form of apnea can happen when you are asleep or awake.
All types of apnea appear during sleep.
Sleep apnea has many causes. The most common include:
- overly relaxed throat muscles or tongue
- enlarged tongue
- enlarged tonsils
- being overweight
- irregular function in the brain signals controlling the throat muscles
- the shape of your head and neck
During an episode of sleep apnea, a person is unable to breathe sufficiently due to a narrowing of the airway. This causes the person to snore loudly and take long breaks in between breaths.
Central Sleep Apnea
There are many types of central sleep apnea. Each type has its own cause:
- complex sleep apnea: develops when being treated for obstructive sleep apnea with continuous positive airway pressure
Cheyne-Stokes breathing: caused by congestive heart failure or stroke
- drug-induced apnea: certain prescription medications, including oxycodone and morphine can induce apnea
- high-altitude periodic breathing: induced when reaching altitudes of 15,000 feet and above
- idiopathic central sleep apnea: a rare form of sleep apnea with an unknown cause
- medical condition-induced central sleep apnea: caused by brainstem damage
Contact your family doctor immediately if you or a loved one develops any of the following symptoms:
If you hear someone snoring and then they are suddenly quiet, or they have long pauses in their breathing, check to see if they are breathing. If they are not, call 911. Follow the emergency operator’s instructions on how to rouse the person and assist their breathing until the paramedics arrive. While people with sleep apnea typically begin breathing again on their own, extended periods without oxygen should be cause for alarm.
Depending on what kind of apnea you have and what caused it, treatment options vary widely. Before offering treatment, your doctor will ask several questions about your sleep patterns, medications used, and medical history.
Sleep testing is often used to diagnose sleep apnea. There are many kinds of sleep studies. Most involve you sleeping in a medical facility with monitors reading your brain, nerve, and heart signals as well as your oxygen levels. The most common sleep studies include:
- nocturnal polysomnography: a test that measures electronic brain waves, breathing rate, blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, and various other bodily conditions during sleep
- oximetry: a way of measuring the oxygen in your blood
- portable cardiorespiratory testing: testing your breathing and pulse throughout the night away from a hospital setting
Treatment options for apnea include:
- treating medical conditions that are causing the apnea. This often includes weight loss if you are overweight.
- changing medications that induce apnea
- wearing a breathing mask while you sleep (continuous positive airway pressure [CPAP] method). This mask supplies you with constant air while you sleep.
- wearing an oxygen mask while you sleep
- taking medications that stimulate breathing
- using a ventilator device to regulate your breathing patterns. This is called adaptive servo-ventilation.
- having surgery to remove obstructions from the airways
- using a mouthpiece used to keep the airways open
If you have severe apnea, your doctor may perform surgery (tracheostomy) to create an opening to your throat. This opening (stoma) is then fitted with a tube to facilitate breathing.
Heart problems may occur due to sudden drops in blood pressure and your blood oxygen levels that occur with slowed or stopped breathing. Early detection and treatment is the best way to prevent this complication.