What is Sleep Apnea?
When we’re asleep, sometimes our bodies and minds do things that we’re not aware of. Some people talk in their sleep, while others grind their teeth, thrash around, or sleepwalk.
One other thing that can happen in our sleep is we can have difficulty breathing—or we can even temporarily stop breathing altogether. This is what sleep apnea is in a nutshell.
The reason sleep apnea happens is a person’s airway muscles relax so much, the airway basically collapses upon itself and blocks airflow. An overly relaxed tongue can also play a role in blocking airflow. Doctors have learned that episodes of sleep apnea typically don’t happen all night. Rather they tend to occur when a person’s sleep cycle moves from a deep sleep into light (R.E.M.) sleep. Episodes of obstruction may occur anywhere from a few times a night to over a dozen times an hour.
So, what happens to someone when their airway is constricted or blocked while sleeping? The brain realizes it’s not getting enough oxygen and will signal the person to wake up, at least partially. The person then ends up choking or gasping to get airflow moving again. The person then returns to sleep, but if the throat again gets blocked, it will spur more choking and gasping.
The end result is people with sleep apnea do not get restful R.E.M. sleep. They will spend the next day suffering from symptoms of sleep deprivation such as headaches or migraines, irritability, inability to concentrate, and just feeling very tired. Over the long term, sleep apnea raises the risk of heart disease, as the constant semi-waking stresses the heart. The temporary lack of oxygen to the brain also increases the risk of strokes. In some cases, a person may fail to partially wake during an episode of sleep apnea and end up suffocating to death.
Aside from the possible severe effects of this condition, sleep apnea is unpleasant to live with. No one wants to go through their days tired and irritable because of lack of sleep. The inability to focus can increase the likelihood of car accidents and decrease work performance. Sleep apnea can strain romantic partnerships, as the noises of snoring and choking disturb the partner’s sleep as well.
If you think you may have sleep apnea, it’s important to take the steps to treat the condition.