Understanding Sleep Apnea: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

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Sleep apnea is a disorder characterized by pauses in breathing while sleeping. When people with sleep apnea sleep, they experience many prolonged breath pauses. Understanding the causes and symptoms of sleep apnea is a good way for healthcare practitioners to provide proper treatments that help you avoid traumatic effects in your daily life.

sleep apnea symptoms

What is sleep apnea?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Sleep apnea is a common condition in which your breathing stops and restarts many times while you sleep”. It is potentially a sleep disorder that does not allow you to get enough oxygen. Sleep apnea includes two types:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea, the most prevalent kind of sleep apnea, occurs when your upper airway becomes clogged repeatedly while you sleep, causing airflow to be reduced or entirely stopped. Obesity, huge tonsils, or changes in hormone levels can all constrict your airway and raise your risk of obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Central sleep apnea occurs when your brain fails to transmit the necessary signals to allow you to breathe. Central sleep apnea is caused by health issues that alter how your brain regulates your airway and chest muscles.

Causes of sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea

The relaxation of the muscles at the back of your throat, including the adenoids, tonsils, and tongue, accounts for obstructive sleep apnea. As you breathe in, your airway narrows or shuts as your muscles relax. You aren’t getting enough air, which causes your blood oxygen level to drop

When your brain senses a lack of oxygen, it makes your body awake to remind you to breathe. With a snort, cough, gasping, or choking sound, a person suffering from obstructive sleep apnea resumes regular breathing.

Central sleep apnea

It happens when your brain has no ability to properly send signals to the muscles that control breathing. For a brief amount of time, you make no attempt to breathe. That’s why you may wake up with shortness of breath or find it difficult to fall or remain asleep.

Risk factors

In terms of obstructive sleep apnea, the risk factors include:

  • Age: Sleep apnea becomes more common as you get older. As you become older, fatty tissue in your neck and tongue might accumulate, posing the threat to sleep apnea.
  • Obesity raises the risk of sleep apnea significantly. Your breathing may be obstructed by fat deposits around your upper airway.
  • Changes in hormone levels, or endocrine disorders: The size and structure of your face, tongue, and airway are all affected by hormone levels. Sleep apnea is more likely in those who have low thyroid hormone levels or high insulin or growth hormone levels.
  • Genealogy and family history: Sleep apnea can be passed down down the generations because the size and shape of your skull, face, and upper airway are influenced by your genes. Additionally, your genes may increase your chance of developing other health problems that might contribute to sleep apnea, such as diabetes.
  • Gender: Men are more likely than women to suffer from sleep apnea and experience severe sleep apnea.
  • Drinking alcohol and smoking: Alcohol relaxes the muscles of the mouth and throat, which might cause your upper airway to constrict. Smoking can irritate your upper airway, making it difficult to breathe.

The following risks may raise central sleep apnea:

  • Age: As you become older, the way your brain controls breathing will change, leading to a higher possibility of getting this illness.
  • Genetics and family history: Your genes may have an impact on how your brain regulates your breathing while you sleep. Congenital central hypoventilation syndrome, for example, might increase your risk.
  • Health conditions: Heart failure, stroke, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), myasthenia gravis, and your hormone levels can affect how your brain controls your breathing.
  • Opioid use disorder or long-term use of opioid-based pain medications can disrupt the way your brain regulates sleep.

Sleep apnea symptoms

Both obstructive and central sleep apneas have similar symptoms, making it difficult to tell which you have. The following are some of the most prevalent signs and symptoms of obstructive and central sleep apneas:

  • Snoring loudly
  • Stop breathing while sleeping 
  • During sleep, gasping for oxygen and waking up with a dry mouth
  • Excessive sleepiness during the day (hypersomnia)
  • Having trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • Having difficulty paying attention while awake
  • Headache in the morning
  • Irritability

sleep apnea symptoms


Breathing devices

The most common therapy for sleep apnea is breathing equipment, such as a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. When you breathe in, a CPAP machine maintains a steady air pressure in your throat to keep the airway open. However, it can make patients feel uncomfortable with some side effects such as congestion, dry eyes, dry mouth, nosebleeds, and runny nose.

Oral devices

Oral appliances might be easier to use than CPAP. There are two types:

  • Mandibular repositioning mouthpieces cover the top and lower teeth and maintain the jaw in a posture that prevents the upper airway from being blocked.
  • Tongue retaining devices prevent the tongue from obstructing the upper airway by holding it forward.


If alternative therapies don’t work, surgery may be required. Surgical methods that may be used include:

  • Tissue removal: is to remove tissue from the back of your mouth and the top of your throat. tonsils and adenoids.
  • Implants: After topical anesthesia, soft rods, generally composed of polyester or plastic, are surgically placed into the soft palate.
  • Maxillomandibular advancement: Your jaw is pushed forward in relation to the rest of your face bones so as to expand the space behind the tongue and soft palate, reducing the likelihood of blockage.
  • Nerve stimulation: A stimulator for the nerve that governs tongue movement is implanted to keep the tongue in a posture that allows the airway to remain open.
  • Tracheostomy: Your surgeon creates a hole in your neck and inserts a metal or plastic tube through which you breathe throughout this treatment.

Healthy lifestyle 

You should make long-term healthy lifestyle changes to help treat your sleep apnea. These include getting enough exercise, keeping a healthy weight and sleeping patterns, limiting alcohol, and quitting smoking. Sleeping on your side is better than on your back, which aids in keeping your airway open while sleeping.

sleep apnea symptoms

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