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Sleep apnea is a serious sleeping disorder that can be life-threatening and at times fatal. Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed. Doctors usually can't detect the condition during routine office visits. Also, there are no blood tests for the condition. People with sleep apnea often fall asleep normally; however, once asleep their ability to breathe is blocked. Usually this inability to breathe is caused by the muscles in the throat relaxing too much and collapsing into the airway. The body then sends a signal to the brain that breathing has temporarily been blocked. This causes the person to wake up and start breathing again.

The cycle of interrupted breathing can occur many times throughout the night. These episodes can occur up to 50 times an hour and last for ten seconds or longer. Often the person that suffers from this sleep disorder is unaware that anything is happening to them. They can not understand why they always feel tired during the daytime.

The most common form of this sleep disorder is obstructive sleep apnea, known as OSA. Some sufferers of obstructive sleep apnea also suffer from cental sleep apnea. This sleep disorder is then called mixed sleep apnea.

It is believed that obstructive sleep apnea affects between 18 - 20% of adults in the United States. If this sleep disorder is left untreated in can become life threatening and in rare cases fatal. It is the underlaying cause of illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, pulmonary hypertension and systemic hypertension.

There are several method of treatments for sleep apnea, both surgical and noninvasive. The first line of therapy for someone suffering from moderate to severe sleep apnea is called positive airway pressure. Known as PAP, positive airway pressure is a noninvasive form of treatment. A machine delivers a constant flow of air through a mask that is worn while sleeping. The force of the air flow must be determined by a sleep technician during an overnight sleep study. There are three types of positive air pressure therapy, CPAP, BiPAP and AutoPAP.

Dental devices are also used to treat this sleep disorder in mild to moderate cases. Dental devices fall into two general categories: mandibular, or lower jaw, advancing devices or tongue retaining devices. Mandibular devices are used most often. They attach to the upper jaw and pull the lower jaw and base of the tongue forward. This shift in position keeps the airway open.

Supplemental oxygen is often used in conjunction with a PAP machine. Oxygen alone can not prevent the collapse of the airway or sleep fragmentation. However, oxygen can prevent the drop in the level of blood oxygen that occurs when the airway collapses.

There are also surgical treatments for obstructive sleep apnea that may be an option for some sufferers of this sleep disorder. These include uvulopalatophrayngoplasty, somnoplasty, corrective jaw surgery, palatal implants and tracheostomy.

People with this sleep disorder generally find that their quality of life can improve with the proper treatment.

Brain and Mental Health

References and Sources: Medline, Pubmed, National Institutes of Health

last update: May 2009

This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this material to diagnose or treat a health condition or disease without consulting with your healthcare provider.
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