What is Sleep Apnea?

What is Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when an airway collapses during sleep. As a person sleeps, all muscles relax except for the respiratory and cardiac muscles. The muscles maintaining the airway may relax allowing the collapse of the airway which closes off the air supply to the lungs. This often occurs when lying on one’s back. The jaw falls back carrying the tongue with it and this can impede the airway. As the space for air shrinks the air flows faster, this in turn disturbs the surrounding tissue. The result is the snoring sound. (Note, an elbow to the ribs may encourage the snorer to roll over.)

If the airspace closes completely the sound of snoring stops. This is dangerous because there is no oxygen going to the lungs! A sensor in the brain alerts the body that it is suffocating and it releases adrenaline. When the adrenaline reaches the heart, it causes an arousal, resulting in a momentary movement to clear the airway.

black-ribbonThis may happen many times during the night, causing considerable stress on the cardiovascular system. This can be serious as studies have shown that moderate to severe sleep apnea can triple a person’s risk for heart attack and stroke. Continued arousals are likey to greatly reduce the quality of sleep.

These are common signs of sleep apnea:

  • Snoring
  • Pauses in breathing while sleeping
  • Daytime sleepiness especially when not involved in physical activity
  • Loss of memory
  • Waking up not feeling rested
  • Waking up repeatedly during the night
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Becoming drowsy when driving or riding in a vehicle
  • History of heart attack or stroke
  • Grinding or clenching teeth