Breathing: Sleep Apnea

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Sleep Apnea Definition

 

Sleep apnea refers to the occasional collapse of the airway and typically occurs at night during sleep. The reason that it typically occurs during sleep is because the muscles that protect the airway relax when we fall asleep. These muscles relax when we drinks alcohol and they can relax if we are take certain medications. The term “apnea” itself means “without air”. Medical professionals will frequently refer to a pause in breathing as an “apnea event”.

 

A little bit of airway collapse is not typically a problem, but if it collapses too much, not enough air can get through the airways and into the lungs. The brain can be very sensitive to knowing when the airways are open or closed. As a result, when the airway closes down too much, the brain will wake up abruptly. One of the issues with sleep apnea is that the person with condition falls back asleep immediately after the brain wakes up. The result is that he won’t remember the next day what happened. In fact, in many cases it’s the spouse who picks up on the sleep apnea.

 

In some people, with significant cases of sleep apnea, they may stop breathing up to 20, 30, or 40 times an hour. Multiplied across the an entire night of sleep, someone with sleep apnea could have hundreds of pauses of breathing during the night.  

 

As might be expected with someone who experiences hundreds of pauses in breath during the night, daytime functioning and general health can be affected. During the periods of paused breathing, oxygen levels decrease significantly and the body releases stress hormones. These stress hormones can take a negative toll on the body, leading to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

 

If they occur zero to five times an hour, that’s a relatively acceptable number of occurrences, and physicians don’t tend to be very aggressive in treating the sleep apnea.


Sleep Apnea Severity

 

Those who have sleep apnea can be described in three groups: mild, moderate, and severe. The severity of sleep apnea can be described in terms of how often these airway closures happen. Five to fifteen closures per hour of sleep is relatively mild. Fifteen to thirty closures per hour is in the moderate or the middle group of sleep apnea, and anything more than thirty pauses of breathing per hour is considered severe, which is the most severe group.

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