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What Is Hypopnea?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2018
    Conjecture Corporation
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Hypopnea is a decrease in the depth and/or frequency of a patient’s breath. Incidents that last more than 10 seconds are clinically significant, as they can lead to a fall in blood oxygenation. This can create symptoms like irritability, fatigue, and confusion. Patients most commonly experience hypopnea in the form of a sleep disorder, although sometimes episodes can occur during waking hours as well. Treatment options are available to keep the patient’s airway open and ensure even oxygenation.

Patients with this condition may experience periods of very shallow breathing, where they do not inhale a sufficient volume of air to fully oxygenate the blood. They may also breathe much too slowly. In sleep, this can create restlessness and other disturbances. During the day, the patient may be irritable and tired because of the lack of sleep. Many patients are not aware of the problem, and cases of sleep hypopnea are often reported by partners who notice the issue.

In daylight hours, hypopnea may be seen in very ill patients as well as people with neuromuscular conditions that affect the airway. These patients may be aware of their breathing problems, but unable to control them. Such cases are more rare than sleep-associated forms, but can be a significant cause for concern. Prolonged periods of hypopnea can cause negative health impacts, particularly in patients who are already sick.

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One treatment is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) ventilation. This forces air into the patient’s lungs to keep the airways open and ensure sufficient oxygenation. CPAP devices can be worn during sleep or during the day, depending on when the patient experiences episodes of hypopnea. They can be adjusted to meet the patient’s needs with changes to the intensity of the airflow and other settings. Patients may find it helpful to consult a respiratory therapist to get advice on using CPAP safely and effectively.

Some patients may require surgery if the hypopnea appears to be obstructive. A surgeon can evaluate the patient’s airway to look for issues that might partially block the airway and limit the ability to breathe. Surgery is considered as an option in cases that do not respond to more conservative measures like changing sleep position or using a CPAP machine in sleep. The doctor may recommend a sleep study to learn more about how and when the breathing problems strike, in order to determine which treatment would be most appropriate for the patient.

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