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What is Sleep Apnea?



If you're waking up groggy, irritable, have a dry mouth, headache and your partner complains of your loud snoring, the culprit may be sleep apnea. This common sleeping disorder is the result of pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. Other symptoms include feeling tired all day, difficulty staying asleep, and attention problems. Breathing pauses can last anywhere from 10 to 20 seconds and depending on the severity, may occur hundreds of times a night. This means the body and the brain don't get enough oxygen. Sleep apnea is a serious disorder and the combination of lack of sleep and oxygen deprivation can lead to many health issues, including high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure and heart attacks, and depression.

Most people with sleep apnea don't know they have it, because, well, they're sleeping. It's only when they present symptoms to their physician or when their partners notice they stop breathing that a sleep study test may be ordered.

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. As you sleep at night, the soft tissue in the back of your throat relaxes and blocks the airway, often causing you to snore loudly. When your airway gets blocked, your body jolts you awake so you can get air. Depending on how many times a night you wake up, you spend less time in the deep, restorative sleep your body needs to repair itself and function.

There are several factors that put others are greater risk for sleep apnea, such as:

  • having a small upper airway (or large tongue, tonsils or uvula)
  • having a recessed chin, small jaw or a large overbite
  • being overweight, a large neck size (17 inches or greater in a man, or 16 inches or greater in a woman)
  • smoking and alcohol use
  • being age 40 or older, and ethnicity (African-Americans, Pacific-Islanders and Hispanics).
  • Also, sleep apnea tends to run in some families, suggesting a possible genetic link.

Sleep apnea sounds scary, but there are devices that can be used to help keep your airway open, such as a continuous positive airflow pressure (CPAP) device or dental devices.