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What is Sleep Apnea Disorder?

Sleep apnea disorder is a condition where a person's breathing stops and then re-starts repeatedly during the course of a night's sleep. This disruption of restful sleep can be caused by brief blockages of the airway or by incorrect signals from the person's central nervous system. The result of these interruptions in breathing is that the person does not feel well rested after a night’s sleep, which can affect his or her ability to concentrate on necessary tasks and function normally during the day. This condition affects many people and can be difficult to diagnose, but once a diagnosis is made there are options for treatment.

There are two main types of sleep apnea disorder with the most common being obstructive sleep apnea. In obstructive sleep apnea, the person's breathing stops because the airway is temporarily blocked. Often this is due to the soft tissue at the back of the throat collapsing, the blockage causes difficulty breathing in addition to brief periods where breathing stops. Sufferers of this type of apnea may snore when efforts to breath cause vibrations in the collapsed airway. It is more common in men, and those who are overweight.

The other type of sleep apnea disorder is called central sleep apnea. In this type of apnea, the muscles that control breathing have periods where the brain doesn't signal them to breathe. When there is no signal from the brain, the muscles make no effort to move and breathing stops for a moment. Some patients have a sleep apnea disorder that is a combination of the two types together, called complex sleep apnea.

A person with sleep apnea disorder will experience these interruptions of breathing many times each night, more than 100 times a night in some cases, and each pause in breathing can last from five to 30 seconds. Each time breathing stops, the body alerts itself and the person moves from deep, restful sleep to periods of much lighter sleep, or even periods of brief wakefulness.

These repeated interruptions and lack of quality sleep cause the patient to feel deeply fatigued during the day. Other symptoms can include irritability, difficulty concentrating, morning headaches, and waking up with a dry, sore throat. The lack of rest can cause difficulties in everyday tasks such as work or school. Over time it can cause or aggravate conditions such as depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems and stroke.

Sleep apnea disorder is very difficult to diagnose, there is no test for it and the patient is usually unaware of it. Often the patient's family members can help by reporting breathing irregularities such as gasping or choking sounds or excessive snoring. At that point, the person can be referred to a sleep specialist who will observe the patient's sleep patterns. Once a diagnosis is made, treatment options include lifestyle changes, specialized mouthpieces, machines to assist breathing, or surgery. Appropriate treatment can reduce or eliminate symptoms and improve the patient's quality of life.

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