Sleep Apnea - A Thief in the Night

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Jessica Brumfield, DO, MS

Georgia South Family Medicine Residency Program

Colquitt Regional Medical Center

Are you always tired? Do you feel like you need a nap, even after a full night’s sleep? If you do, take this quick questionnaire:

I frequently feel sleepy or doze off while:

-Sitting and reading for more than 5 minutes

-Watching TV

-Sitting inactive, even in a public place

-While driving or as a passenger in a vehicle

-Sitting quietly after lunch

If several of these apply to you, you may be suffering from a medical condition called sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a disorder of abnormal breathing patterns that disrupt sleep. It is a thief stealing the good sleep you need! There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and mixed sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea refers to abnormal breathing due to a blockage of airflow to your lungs while you are sleeping. Central sleep apnea occurs when the respiratory control center of the brain is not functioning properly. Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea is, by far, the most common form, affecting 1 in 5 males over age 40, and 1 in 10 females over age 40. On rarer occasions, it can even affect children.

Many things can put a person at risk for developing sleep apnea. These include being male, a smoker, or obese; having a large neck, enlarged tonsils, or a strong family history of the disorder; and using sedatives or alcohol. People who have obstructive sleep apnea may wake throughout the night gasping for air or choking. They even stop breathing completely during sleep and are often told that they snore.

How do you know if you have obstructive sleep apnea? Do you have morning headaches? If you are drowsy all day, feel you can’t concentrate, are a snorer or a restless sleeper, you may be suffering from sleep apnea. A visit with your doctor may prompt him or her to obtain a special sleep study that measures brain activity, oxygen levels, and eye movements while you sleep. More importantly, a sleep study measures the number of apneic (stopped breathing) events while you were sleeping and the number of arousals from sleep you had. If your sleep study determines you do have sleep apnea, your doctor is likely to recommend that you work on weight loss and that you sleep with a special machine that helps your breathing by keeping your airway open. In some cases, surgery may be required to open the airway blockages.

So, why is obstructive sleep apnea so important? If untreated, it can lead to dangerous complications, like high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and a higher chance of automobile accidents. All of these increase the risk of death.