Sleep apnea: Treatments, causes, and symptoms

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in which an individual’s breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. Symptoms include daytime sleepiness, loud snoring, and restless sleep.

The involuntary pause in breathing can result either from a blocked airway or a signaling problem in the brain. Most people with the condition have the first kind, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Sleep apnea due to a signaling problem is known as central sleep apnea (CSA).

The person will unknowingly stop breathing repeatedly throughout sleep. Once the airway is opened or the breathing signal is received, the person may snort, take a deep breath, or awaken completely with a sensation of gasping, smothering, or choking.

Untreated sleep apnea can lead to potentially serious health complications, such as heart disease and depression. It can also leave a person feeling drowsy, increasing the risk of accidents while driving or working.

Fast facts on sleep apnea

Here are some key points about sleep apnea:

Around 1 in 5 adults have mild symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), while 1 in 15 have moderate-to-severe symptoms.

Approximately 18 million Americans have this condition, but only 20 percent have been diagnosed and treated.

Menopausal and postmenopausal women have an increased risk of OSA.

Sleep apnea is an independent risk factor for hypertension (high blood pressure).

While sleep apnea is more prevalent in those aged 50 years and above, it can affect people of all ages, including children.


Man asleep with CPAP therapy mask on.
One of the treatment options is CPAP therapy, where air is pushed through a mask to keep the airway open during sleep.

Sleep apnea is a common problem associated with decreased overall health and a higher risk of life-threatening complications, such as motor vehicle accidents, difficulty concentrating, depression, heart attack, and stroke.

Depending on the cause and the level of apnea, there are different methods of treatment. The goal of treatment is to normalize breathing during sleep.

Normalizing breathing has the following effects on apnea:

It eliminates daytime fatigue.

It removes unwanted mental health changes from apnea or lack of sleep.

It prevents cardiovascular changes caused by the excess strain of improper breathing.

Lifestyle changes

Lifestyle modifications are essential to normalizing breathing, and they are critical first steps in treatment.

They include:

alcohol cessation

smoking cessation

weight loss

side sleeping

Other options

Other treatment options include:

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy: This is the frontline treatment for sleep apnea. It keeps the airway open by gently providing a constant stream of positive pressure air through a mask.

Some people have trouble using CPAP and stop the treatment before achieving any lasting benefit. However, there are many measures that can be taken to make the equipment more comfortable and the adjustment period smooth. The mask and its settings can be adjusted, and adding moisture to the air as it flows through the mask can relieve nasal symptoms.

Surgery: There are various surgical procedures for OSA that can widen the airway. Surgery can be used to stiffen or shrink obstructing tissue, or remove excess tissue, or enlarged tonsils. Depending on the extent of the surgery, procedures can be carried out in a doctor’s office or a hospital.

Mandibular repositioning device (MRD): This is a custom-made oral appliance suitable for individuals with mild or moderate OSA. This mouthpiece holds the jaw in a forward position during sleep to expand the space behind the tongue. This helps keep the upper airway open, preventing apneas, and snoring.

Side effects of an MRD may include jaw or tooth pain, and potential aggravation of temporomandibular joint disease.

Untreated sleep apnea and its effects can have severe consequences. Any individual with excessive daytime sleepiness or other symptoms of sleep apnea should ask a doctor about their symptoms.

Man snoring in bed while woman is annoyed
One of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea is snoring.

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