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What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common and potentially serious condition that often goes unrecognized. Loud snoring, and fits and starts during sleep, are typical features of the problem.

My wife has been complaining about my snoring for years. Recently, a friend of hers told her about something called sleep apnea, where you snore a lot and momentarily stop breathing during sleep.

How do I know if I have sleep apnea? How do I know if I need treatment, and if I do, what treatments are available?

Apnea means absence of breathing. People with sleep apnea momentarily stop breathing, for at least 10 seconds at a time, sometimes hundreds of times a night.

There are two kinds of sleep apnea: central and obstructive. Central sleep apnea is rare. It results from repeated episodes of failure to breathe. For unknown reasons, you temporarily lose your drive to inhale, which is controlled "centrally" in the brain.

With obstructive sleep apnea, the more common form, the stimulus to inhale works, but something temporarily blocks your windpipe. Folds of tissue in your throat can fall back and block your breathing.

Because of this momentary blockage, you're not able to take in a breath. Within a few seconds, you start to struggle to breathe. You may gasp, snort, startle or toss in bed until the blockage is relieved. You soon get back into a position where the blockage recurs, and the cycle starts all over again.

Loud snoring, especially with gasping or choking sounds, is the major tip-off to sleep apnea. Virtually all people with sleep apnea snore. But not all people who snore have sleep apnea. Daytime sleepiness is the other major symptom. Because your sleep is repeatedly interrupted during the night, you never get a full night's sleep. Most people with sleep apnea aren't aware of those problems.

Other clues to sleep apnea are falling asleep during the day; automobile accidents or accidents on the job due to tiredness; changes in personality; and difficulty thinking or concentrating because of fatigue. Sleep apnea may also increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

An important tip-off to sleep apnea is a friend or family member who says that you snore a lot. Even more telling are reports that you seem to stop breathing for a few seconds, gasp or choke, and then startle yourself into breathing again.

New treatments can improve your sleep, and make you feel and function better.

Next: Indicators of obstructive sleep apnea