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Thorough testing urged to diagnose sleep apnea

People who have trouble sleeping should be tested to diagnose sleep apnea -- the brief cessation of breathing while sleeping. However, the disorder is rarely fatal.

Sleep apnea occurs when a person stops breathing and no air flows past the nose and mouth for more than 10 seconds. People normally have sleep pauses and stop breathing for several seconds.

The carbon dioxide level in the blood then rises and triggers chemo-receptors in the body, arousing the person. Snoring is the most common form of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a serious condition that can be fatal if the obstructed breathing periods last longer than 10 seconds and occur more than seven times an hour

Those who die have a history of obesity or cardiac arythmia, an abnormal heart pattern. Sleep apnea also has been implicated in sudden infant death.

Sleep apnea is not a common problem. Its symptoms may be overlooked or treatment may be prescribed for the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem.

A study followed-up 27 patients referred to the sleep disorders laboratory at the Western Psychiatric Institute in Pittsburgh. Patients who had more than 30 apneic episodes of more than 30 seconds in the course of one night's sleep were considered to have sleep apnea.

The typical patient in the study was male, over 40 and obese. About half the 27 patients had obstructive apnea, in which the airflow past the person's nose and mouth stops even though his breathing is normal.

One-fourth of the patients were diagnosed as having central sleep apnea, in which the area of the brain that controls breathing does not function properly. The remaining patients had mixed apnea, a combination of obstructive and central apnea.

Many patients with obstructive apnea slept only half the night. Desperation may lead patients to ask for inappropriate treatment.

True obstructive apnea may be relieved through weight loss, using a soft rubber tube inserted in the throat while sleeping or by a surgical procedure.

However, treatment of patients who suffer from central or mixed apnea is not as clear-cut. Patients are urged to avoid drinking alcohol and are cautioned not to use other drugs. Sometimes anti-depressant therapy is helpful.

Patients with suspected sleep disorders need thorough testing. Comprehensive sleep studies are essential to help pinpoint the type of apnea. Surgery for apnea may be appropriate under certain circumstances, but remains controversial.

Next: What is Sleep Apnea?