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What is Sleep Apnea? An Essential Guide to Understanding and Managing the Disorder

Learn about sleep apnea, how it can affect your health and effective solutions for treating the condition.

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder that impacts your quality of rest. As you sleep, your breathing repeatedly stops and starts, often leading to loud snoring and daytime fatigue. Knowing the symptoms and causes of sleep apnea can help you recognize the condition and seek appropriate treatment early on.

There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA). OSA is more common and occurs when the muscles in the throat relax, blocking the airway. CSA, on the other hand, results from a failure of the brain to signal the muscles to breathe during sleep. Both types prevent your body from getting enough oxygen, ultimately affecting your overall health.

If you suspect that you or a loved one may be suffering from sleep apnea, it’s important to consult a healthcare provider. Timely diagnosis and adherence to prescribed treatments can significantly improve the quality of sleep and minimize the risk of potential complications.

Types of Sleep Apnea

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of sleep apnea. When you have OSA, your throat muscles relax and block the flow of air into your lungs while you sleep. This often results in loud snoring and frequent pauses in breathing during sleep. Some risk factors for OSA include obesity, a large neck circumference, and family history. To manage OSA, you may need to make lifestyle changes, use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, or possibly undergo surgery. For more information, visit the Mayo Clinic page on OSA.

Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is a less common form of sleep apnea, which occurs when your brain doesn’t send the proper signals to control your breathing muscles during sleep. This can lead to pauses in your breathing, even though there’s no physical obstruction. CSA is often associated with other medical conditions, such as heart failure or stroke. Treatment for CSA may include addressing the underlying cause and using adaptive servo-ventilation or other devices to help maintain regular breathing patterns. Learn more about CSA from the Sleep Foundation.

Mixed Sleep Apnea

Mixed sleep apnea, also known as complex sleep apnea, is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea. In mixed sleep apnea, you experience the symptoms and causes of both OSA and CSA. It may initially present as OSA, but as you undergo treatment, the central component becomes more apparent. Mixed sleep apnea is often diagnosed when standard OSA treatments, like a CPAP machine, fail to improve your symptoms. Your doctor may need to try alternative treatments, such as bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) machines or adaptive servo-ventilation machines, to find the right solution for you. To further explore mixed sleep apnea, visit the Cleveland Clinic page on sleep apnea.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that can result in various symptoms that affect your daily life. Knowing these symptoms can help you identify if you might be suffering from this condition.

One of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea is excessive daytime sleepiness. You may find it challenging to stay awake during the day, even if you had a full night’s sleep. This could lead to drowsiness during driving, working, or other activities.

Another major symptom of sleep apnea is loud snoring. It is often punctuated by gasping or choking sounds. However, it’s important to note that not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, and not everyone with sleep apnea snores loudly.

In addition to loud snoring, sleep apnea can cause breathing pauses during sleep. These episodes of stopped breathing can be observed and reported by another person sharing your sleeping space.

You might also experience morning headaches that persist for several hours upon waking up. Often, these headaches are accompanied by a dry mouth or sore throat.

Restless sleep is another common symptom, with periods of wakefulness during the night. This can result in difficulty staying asleep, a condition known as insomnia.

Moreover, sleep apnea can also cause trouble concentrating during the day. You may find it hard to focus on tasks, and this can lead to mood changes, such as irritability or even depression.

To sum up, the main symptoms of sleep apnea include excessive daytime sleepiness, loud snoring, breathing pauses, morning headaches, restless sleep, and trouble concentrating. If you or someone you know experiences these symptoms, it’s crucial to consult a medical professional to receive the appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

Risk Factors

Several factors may increase your risk of developing sleep apnea. As you become more aware of these factors, it’s essential to acknowledge them and make necessary changes when possible.

  • Gender and age: Men are more likely to develop sleep apnea than women, and the risk of developing the condition increases with age until a person reaches their 60s or 70s.
  • Body weight: Obesity and being overweight play a significant role in sleep apnea as excess weight can cause fatty tissues to accumulate around the airway, making it harder to breathe.
  • Family history: If you have a family member with sleep apnea, you may have a higher risk due to genetic influences.
  • Neck circumference: A larger neck circumference may increase the risk of sleep apnea since it may result in a narrower airway.

Lifestyle factors also contribute to the development of sleep apnea:

  • Alcohol and smoking: Alcohol consumption and smoking can relax the muscles in the airway, worsening sleep apnea symptoms. Cutting back on alcohol and quitting smoking may help reduce your risk.
  • Allergies: Allergies may cause inflammation and blockage of the airways, increasing the risk of sleep apnea. Treating allergies and avoiding triggers can help manage symptoms.
  • Anxiety: Chronic stress and anxiety may worsen sleep apnea symptoms, making it important to address any underlying anxiety disorders or manage stress through relaxation techniques and other healthy practices.

Taking control of these factors and making healthy lifestyle changes may help lower your risk of developing sleep apnea or improve its symptoms. Remember to consult with a healthcare professional if you experience any symptoms or have concerns about sleep apnea.

Diagnosis and Testing

If you suspect you may have sleep apnea, the first step is to consult with your doctor. They will review your symptoms, your medical history and may ask about your family history of sleep apnea. To properly diagnose sleep apnea, your doctor will likely recommend a sleep study.

A sleep study typically involves an overnight stay at a sleep center, where you undergo a test called polysomnography. This test electronically records specific physical activities while you sleep, such as your heart rate, brain activity, breathing patterns, and oxygen levels in your blood.

During the polysomnography, your sleep will be monitored for episodes of disrupted breathing. These disruptions are called apneas, which are pauses in breathing that last for at least 10 seconds. The test also measures hypopneas, which are partial blockages in your airway that reduce airflow for a minimum of 10 seconds. The number of apneas, hypopneas, and respiratory effort-related arousals (RERA) per hour will be used to determine the severity of your sleep apnea.

Some key components of polysomnography include:

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brain activity
  • Electrooculogram (EOG) to measure eye movements
  • Electromyogram (EMG) to measure muscle activity
  • ECG or heart rate monitor to measure heart rate and rhythm
  • Oxygen saturation monitor to measure blood oxygen levels

In some cases, your doctor might recommend home sleep testing as an alternative to a sleep center study. Home sleep tests are less comprehensive than polysomnography but can still help diagnose sleep apnea by monitoring your breathing, blood oxygen levels, and heart rate.

Once your sleep study is completed, your doctor will analyze the results and determine whether you have sleep apnea and how severe it is. Based on the findings, they will recommend the most appropriate treatment to help you manage your sleep apnea and improve your sleep quality.

Treatment Options

Lifestyle Changes

As a starting point, you can make certain lifestyle changes in order to manage your sleep apnea more effectively. Such changes can include weight loss, regular exercise, avoiding alcohol and sedatives, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, and sleeping in a position that promotes better breathing.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)

The most common treatment for sleep apnea is the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. This device delivers air pressure through a mask, ensuring your upper airway passages remain open during sleep. Regular use of a CPAP machine can help you breathe more easily, reducing instances of snoring and sleep apnea interruptions.

Oral Appliances

Another effective non-surgical treatment for sleep apnea are oral appliances, which are custom-fitted devices worn during sleep. They help maintain an open airway by repositioning your jaw or tongue. According to the Sleep Foundation, these appliances can be a suitable alternative for those who cannot tolerate CPAP.


Certain medications can be prescribed to treat specific causes or symptoms of sleep apnea. For example, if your sleep apnea is caused by nasal congestion, a prescription decongestant may be recommended. Always consult with your healthcare provider before starting any new medications.


In some cases, surgical intervention may be necessary to treat sleep apnea. Types of surgeries for sleep apnea include uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP), genioglossus advancement (GA), maxillomandibular advancement (MMA), and hypoglossal nerve stimulation. Your healthcare provider can help determine the most appropriate surgical option depending on the severity and cause of your condition.

Associated Health Conditions

Sleep apnea can contribute to various health conditions that negatively impact your well-being. One major concern is its effect on your heart. When you experience pauses in breathing during sleep, it can lead to increased strain on your heart, causing high blood pressure and even increasing the risk of heart attack.

Some health conditions associated with sleep apnea include:

  • High blood pressure: Sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure because your body has to work harder to provide oxygen when your breathing is interrupted. This strain on your circulatory system can lead to hypertension, which can cause further complications if not managed properly.
  • Heart disease: The strain on your heart caused by sleep apnea can increase the risk of developing heart disease. The irregular, interrupted breathing can also trigger atrial fibrillation, which is an irregular heartbeat that can contribute to heart disease or worsen pre-existing conditions.
  • Stroke: The increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease due to sleep apnea can also make you more susceptible to having a stroke.
  • Diabetes: Severe sleep apnea can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes. Chronic sleep disruption and poor oxygen supply can lead to insulin resistance and hinder your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar effectively.
  • Congestive heart failure: Ongoing interruptions in breathing may increase the risk of congestive heart failure, a condition in which your heart is not pumping blood efficiently.
  • Dementia: Studies have suggested a possible link between sleep apnea and an increased risk of dementia, as frequent awakenings and sleep disruptions can impact your cognitive abilities and brain health over time.

In summary, sleep apnea can contribute to a variety of health conditions, emphasizing the importance of timely diagnosis and treatment.

Additional Considerations

Breathing is a fundamental process that can be affected by sleep apnea. This disorder causes your breathing to repeatedly stop and start during sleep, which can lead to a range of health problems if left untreated. When you experience sleep apnea, the muscles in your throat relax, causing the soft tissue to collapse and partially or completely block your airways. Additionally, enlarged tonsils or adenoids can contribute to obstructions, reducing the oxygen flow to your body.

Nasal congestion is another factor that can exacerbate sleep apnea. If you’re male, you have a higher risk of developing sleep disorders, including sleep apnea. One of the prominent symptoms of sleep apnea is awakening with a dry mouth, which can also be accompanied by insomnia – difficulty staying asleep.

Sleep apnea has been linked to various health problems, such as fatigue, depression, headaches, and even asthma. It’s essential to follow a healthy lifestyle and maintain proper sleep hygiene to minimize the risk factors associated with sleep apnea. For example, choosing a suitable pillow that supports your head and neck, as well as sleeping on your side, can alleviate some symptoms.

A sore throat in the mornings might also be a sign of sleep apnea. If you suspect you have this breathing disorder, don’t hesitate to consult your healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan. It’s crucial to avoid self-medicating with sleeping pills, as they can worsen sleep apnea and have severe health consequences. Instead, focus on improving your sleep quality through measures such as regulating the bedroom temperature and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule.

Shortness of breath and episodes of shallow breathing, or hypopnea, can be indicators of sleep apnea. Monitoring your hormone levels and managing stress is essential, as stress can contribute to the development and severity of sleep apnea. In many cases, healthcare providers may recommend breathing devices, such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, to keep airways open and alleviate symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is sleep apnea genetic?

Yes, sleep apnea can be genetic. Research suggests that genetic factors contribute to a person’s likelihood of developing obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is a type of sleep apnea caused by physical airway blockages. Your genes determine the size and shape of your skull, face, and upper airway, which can raise your risk of developing sleep apnea. Other health conditions that can lead to sleep apnea, such as cleft lip and cleft palate and Down syndrome, can also be inherited. However, not all cases of sleep apnea are genetic, and lifestyle factors such as obesity and smoking can also increase the risk of developing sleep apnea.

What are the benefits of using a CPAP machine?

Using a CPAP machine to treat sleep apnoea has benefits for your long-term snoring prevention, lifestyle changes, and mental health. A CPAP machine pumps air into a mask worn over the mouth or nose while sleeping and helps improve breathing and quality of sleep. Plus, there are few side effects associated with using a CPAP machine. Additionally, following good sleep hygiene practices – like keeping regular bedtimes, avoiding caffeine late in the day, and exercising regularly – can also help you get better rest each night. With these combined interventions you can take control of your sleep apnea and feel more connected with yourself and others around you.

Are there any alternative treatments for sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea can be a serious condition, so getting treatment is important. While CPAP machines are the main form of therapy, there are alternative treatments available. These include lifestyle changes such as positional therapy and exercise regimens, mouthpiece devices, and other alternative therapies. Talk to your doctor about the best approach for you to treat your sleep apnoea, so you can achieve better sleep quality and reduce any symptoms you may have.

Is it safe to drive if I have sleep apnea?

If you have sleep apnea, being aware of the risks associated with driving is important. Studies show that people with untreated sleep apnea are seven times more likely to be involved in a car accident compared to those without the condition. It is essential to undergo a risk assessment. Daytime fatigue can also increase your risk of being involved in an accident so if you are feeling tired during the day it is best to avoid driving until your condition has been controlled or treated.


Sleep apnea is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition. It can have a major impact on your quality of life, but with the right diagnosis and treatment plan, it’s possible to manage the symptoms and even reverse some of the complications associated with this disorder.

With regular monitoring by a sleep specialist, you can rest easy knowing that you’re doing everything in your power to keep yourself healthy.

Sleep apnoea is like an invisible monster: if you don’t take control of it, it could soon take control over you – so don’t wait until it’s too late to seek help!

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About the Author

James Smith
Co-founder of Browse Wellness
James co-founded Browse Wellness by combining his love and passion for yoga and meditation with his entrepreneurial spirit and marketing expertise. James has spent the last decade exploring the wellness landscape of South-East and Central Asia, from Thailand and Bali to the Himalayan mountains of Nepal and Bhutan. James is a certified yoga instructor and holistic nutritionist, and his approach to wellness is grounded in a holistic, whole-body perspective.



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