Sleep apnea Part 1: explanation and symptoms

Twenty-two million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, but 80% of moderate and severe obstructive sleep apnea cases appear to go undiagnosed. Those of us who sleep solo nightly/daily may not be aware of our snoring or breathing habits. And with the epidemic of overweight U. S. citizens increasing in number, so too are the case statistics for this health disorder.

What exactly does the medical term imply? The Greek word “apnea” literally means “without breath.” Sleep apnea is an involuntary cessation of breathing that occurs while the patient is asleep.

How does this happen?

Mayo Clinic explains that the breathing muscles in the back of the throat relax during sleep, and in this case, too much. Mayo states, “These muscles support the soft palate, the triangular piece of tissue hanging from the soft palate (uvula), the tonsils, the side walls of the throat and the tongue. When this physical change (obstructive sleep apnea) happens these (muscular) structures collapse inward and obstruct airflow.”

After 10-30 seconds of obstruction, the level of oxygen in the patient’s blood becomes significantly lowered enough to awaken the brain. The brain, in turn, rouses these same breathing muscles to return to their normal tone, which can lead to a possible “snort” sound. This same pattern can repeat itself hundreds of times nightly, but many individuals are not aware of their deficit of needed deep restorative sleep. Instead they wake up in the morning feeling drowsy, a feeling they might carry with themselves throughout the day. Indeed, my daughter-in-law recently was tested with an “at home portable monitoring device” which proved that she actually stopped breathing 50 times during that night’s study interrupting her sleep patterns. Her blood oxygen levels, at these times, reached lows of 69 percent.

Loud snoring (though not everyone with sleep apnea snores), awakening suddenly with a dry mouth or sore throat or headache, or displaying a daily general irritability may be signs exhibited of the more common type of apnea, obstructive sleep apnea. Mayo Clinic explains that the second less common apnea form, central sleep apnea, occurs “when the brain (initially) fails to transmit signals to the breathing muscles (in the back of the throat). (In these cases), there will be no effort to breathe for a short period of time. The person may awaken with a (great) shortness of breath or have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep.”

Risk factors/Predispositions for obstructive sleep apnea include:

1. Excessive weight. Four times more likely to develop the disorder with fat deposits found around the upper airway. 2. Possessing a neck circumference for men of 17 inches/ for women a neck circumference of 15 inches.

3. Having a narrow airway with a narrow throat, or problems with tonsils or adenoids (the latter two, especially in children).

4. Being male. Men are twice as likely to develop the disorder than women (except overweight women, especially after menopause).

5. Aging.

6. Family history.

7. Use of alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers that relax the throat muscles too much.

8. Smoking makes a person three times as likely to develop sleep apnea because in increases inflammation and fluid retention in upper airway; this risk drops after quitting.

9. Nasal congestion due to allergies or anatomical problems leading to breathing through nose problems.

Risk factors/Predispositions for central sleep apnea:

1. Old age.

2. Having heart disorders such as congestive heart failure 3. Using narcotic pain meds such as opioids, especially long-acting ones such as methadone.

4. Having had a stroke.

Coming in part 2: Complications, diagnosis and treatment options.

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