Sleep Apnea: Everything You Need to Know

Too much relaxation of the throat muscles during sleep leads to sleep apnea, also known as obstructive sleep apnea or OSA. This type of sleep apnea affects the majority of sufferers. Central sleep apnea is less common when you stop breathing several times while you sleep. A malfunction in the systems that regulate breathing rate and depth is to blame.

When you breathe in during sleep, the walls of your throat can collapse and narrow, leading to sleep apnea. When the airway becomes blocked, the air pressure exerted on the tissues at the back of the throat causes vibrations that are heard as snoring. The condition known as "slow breathing" (hypopnea) occurs when the throat narrows to the point that not enough air is being taken in or when the entire airway is blocked off (apnea).

Occlusions, either partial or total, can cause temporary slowing or cessation of breathing (generally between 10 seconds and up to one minute). Those occurrences are sometimes referred to as episodes or breaks. The brain receives warning signals when these occur and briefly becomes alert. The vast majority of people have no idea they are experiencing these stimulations.

Hundreds of times a night, this pattern may play out, leaving you exhausted and sleep-deprived. This can cause you to feel drained and unmotivated in the morning, as well as fatigue and sleepiness all day.

Who Gets Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea can affect anyone. It is thought to affect about 5% of Australians, with roughly 1 in 4 men over the age of 30 being diagnosed. The prevalence of the disorder increases with age, with men over 30 experiencing it at a rate roughly three times that of women.

Since sleep is when the muscles in the throat relax and allow snoring and sleep apnea to occur, those with narrow throats are at a greater risk for both conditions.

Sleep Apnea Severity Levels

The severity of sleep apnea is determined by how frequently your breathing is interrupted. As an example:

  • Normal sleep consists of no more than 5 interruptions per hour.
  • Mild sleep apnea - 5 to 15 interruptions per hour
  • Sleep apnea of moderate severity - 15 to 30 interruptions per hour
  • More than 30 interruptions per hour characterize severe sleep apnea.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

Some of the causes of apnea during sleep are:

  1. Being overweight or obese causes the throat to become constricted due to fat accumulation around the neck.
  2. Getting older causes the throat muscles to loosen up more often while sleeping.
  3. The throat muscles become more relaxed when drinking alcohol, increasing sleep apnea and snoring risk.
  4. Some medical conditions, like low thyroid function (hypothyroidism) or a massive goiter.
  5. The possibility of sleep apnea in children due to enlarged tonsils and adenoids.
  6. Various pharmaceuticals (such as sleeping tablets and sedatives).
  7. A blockage or congestion in one's nasal passages.
  8. The quantity and density of muscular tissue in the face and the structure of the facial bones (such as an undershot jaw).

How is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

Consult a doctor if you suspect you or someone you know has sleep apnea. If your doctor thinks you have sleep apnea, they may send you to a sleep specialist.

Your GP or sleep physician may arrange a sleep study based on their examination and assessment.

A sleep study is a medical test to diagnose sleep disorders like sleep apnea. A sleep study examines what you do when you sleep. The majority of sleep studies assess:

  • brain messages
  • limb movements and sleep position
  • levels of oxygen in the blood
  • pulse rate
  • snoring and breathing.

You will be connected to a portable machine, with monitoring leads placed on your body to track your sleep throughout the night. Sleep studies can be done at home or by staying overnight in a sleep clinic. They can be done in both public and private healthcare settings.

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