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What is sleep apnea?

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder in which breathing stops or gets too shallow and the oxygen within the blood stream drops below normal levels.  Apnea occurs when breathing pauses and airflow ceases for greater than or equal to 10 seconds.  The pauses can occur 5 to 30 times per hour and a few to hundreds of times throughout the night while sleeping.  Normal breathing starts again after each pause, sometimes with a loud snore or choking sound.  A person with sleep apnea often moves from deep, restorative sleep into lighter sleep due to the pauses between breaths.  This leads to poor sleep quality and excessive daytime sleepiness.  Three different types of sleep apnea exist: obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and mixed sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) – Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of sleep apnea.  Obstructive sleep apnea, or simply “sleep apnea”, occurs when the muscles in the back throat relax and the soft tissues they support narrow or close the airway.  When the airway narrows or closes, the amount of air delivered to the lungs decreases or stops.  The soft tissues that cause this obstruction consist of the soft palate, the uvula (the triangular piece of tissue hanging from the soft palate), the tonsils and the tongue.  Figures of a normal airway and an abnormal airway contrasts what happens to a patient with sleep apnea on the top right-hand portion of this page.
  • Central Sleep Apnea – This is a rarer form of sleep apnea and occurs when your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing.  No obstruction is found as with OSA.  Patients that have experienced a heart attack or stroke have an increased risk for developing this disease.
  • Complex or Mixed Sleep Apnea – This form of sleep apnea is the rarest and is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apneas.  This condition has been identified and named only within the last year.

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