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’re sleeping. For this reason,
it’s often called sleep apnea. Usually, sleep apnea is
treatable with medication and lifestyle changes. Occasionally, surgery is
Untreated apnea can 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.
This type of apnea occurs when there is an obstruction in
the airways preventing proper breathing. One of the main causes of obstructive
apnea is enlarged tonsils.
In central apnea, the area of the brain that facilitates
breathing doesn’t function properly. This form of apnea is most commonly seen
in immature babies and results from improper development of this area of their
This form of apnea is a mixture of both obstructive and
central apnea. It can occur when you’re asleep or awake.
Sleep apnea has many causes. The most common include:
- overly relaxed throat muscles or tongue
- enlarged tongue
- enlarged tonsils
- being overweight
- irregular function of the brain signals that control
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, which causes them 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 one is
being treated for obstructive sleep apnea with continuous positive airway
breathing is caused by congestive heart failure or stroke.
- Drug-induced apnea is caused
by certain prescription medications, including oxycodone and morphine.
- High-altitude periodic
can occur when one reaches altitudes of 15,000 feet.
- Idiopathic central sleep
is a rare form of sleep apnea with an unknown cause.
condition-induced central sleep apnea is caused by brainstem
- Apnea of prematurity occurs in premature babies due to
an underdeveloped nervous system.
to see a doctor
Contact your family doctor immediately if you or a loved one
develops any of the following symptoms:
- chronic snoring
- loud snoring
- choking in your sleep
- gasping for air when sleeping
- daytime fatigue
- headaches in the daytime
- difficulty concentrating
- memory problems
- frequent urination at night
- dry mouth
- sore throat after waking up
If you hear someone who is snoring suddenly go quiet, or you
notice 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.
Treatment options vary widely, depending on what kind of
apnea you have and what causes it. Before offering treatment, your doctor will
ask questions about:
medications you use
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:
a test that measures electronic brain waves, breathing rate, blood
pressure, blood oxygen levels, and various other bodily conditions during
- oximetry: a way of measuring the
oxygen in your blood
cardiorespiratory testing: testing your breathing and pulse throughout the night
away from a hospital setting
Approaches to treating apnea include the following:
Treating medical conditions
Many different medical conditions can cause apnea. Most
often, the first line of treatment is to treat these underlying conditions. This
often includes losing weight if you’re overweight.
Certain medications can induce apnea. Sometimes, changing
these medications can help you improve.
Wearing a breathing mask while you sleep
This mask is called a continuous positive airway pressure
mask, or CPAP mask. Wearing it supplies you with constant air while you sleep.
Other treatments for apnea can include:
- wearing an oxygen mask that delivers positive pressure
to the lungs while you sleep
- taking medications that stimulate breathing
- using a ventilator device to regulate your breathing
patterns, called adaptive servo-ventilation
- having surgery to remove obstructions from the airways
- using a mouthpiece to keep the airways open
- apnea of prematurity is treated with intravenous caffeine
If you have severe apnea, your doctor may perform surgery
called a tracheostomy to create an opening to your throat. This opening, or stoma,
is then fitted with a tube to facilitate your breathing.
Heart problems may occur due to sudden drops in your blood
pressure and blood oxygen levels that occur with slowed or stopped breathing.
Early detection and treatment of apnea is the best way to prevent this