Definition: what is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a sleep issue, involving involuntary breathing interruptions whilst sleeping. It is also sometimes known as obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS).
This respiratory failure lasts on average between 10 and 30 seconds and can recur many times in one night. They are caused by a complete blockage (apnea) or partial blockage (hypopnea) in the upper respiratory tract at the back of the throat. The body then realizes that there is a lack of oxygen and the person wakes up for a short moment to catch its breath. This is known as a “micro alarm clock”.
Sleep apnea is a very common issue and affects around 5% of the population, of which the majority are men.
Symptoms: how to recognise sleep apnea
Symptoms of sleep apnea are due to a bad quality of sleep. Therefore, for those who are affected, there is a significant fatigue upon awakening (asthenia), daytime sleepiness, irritability, a decrease in libido and headaches.
During the night, sleep apnea can cause considerable snoring, noisy breathing recovering, restless sleeping, night sweats and in some cases frequent urination.
Causes and risk factors of sleep apnea
The most important factor of sleep apnea is obesity. This is because it can cause fat deposits in the back of the throat which obstruct the respiratory passage. A family history which involves surgery, allergies or genetic peculiarities can also cause this blockage.
Age (between 45 and 65 years old), gender (men are more affected than women) as well as excessive consumption of alcohol, tobacco or medication, are other factors that must be taken into account.
Diagnosis: how to test for sleep apnea
Someone who is affected by sleep apnea does not necessarily realise that they have these problems. If it is suspected, a doctor can confirm the diagnose by using recordings of nighttime activity (with an electrocardiogram, respiratory movements, brain activity etc.) which are carried out at home or in specialised centres.
The seriousness of sleep apnea is measured by the number of apneas (or hypopneas) per hour of sleeping. This is what we call the apnea/hypopnea index per hour (AHI). If it is between 5 and 15, the sleep apnea is considered to be low. Between 16 and 30, the sleep apnea is considered moderate whilst severe is when the frequency goes beyond 30.
Treating sleep apnea
Treating sleep apnea generally relies on using a kind of apparatus which allows the sufferer to sleep through the night, a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure). This is a machine which pumps pressured air through a mask towards the open airways around the throat area. Other alternatives can also be suggested such as surgery or other oral devices.
If not treated, sleep apnea can have significant consequences such as an increased risk of heart conditions, high blood pressure, strokes, heart attacks, sexual dysfunction or type 2 diabetes.