Sleep Apnea

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which breathing stops during sleep for 10 seconds or more, sometimes more than 300 times a night. The hallmark of the disorder is excessive daytime sleepiness and compromised quality of life, including significant social and emotional problems. There are two main types of sleep apnea. “Obstructive sleep apnea” may represent cessation of breathing due to mechanical blockage of the airway; “central sleep apnea” appears to be related to a malfunction of the brain’s normal signal to breathe. Symptoms of sleep apnea may include restless sleep, loud, heavy snoring (often interrupted by silence and then gasps), falling asleep while driving and/or during the day (at work, watching TV, etc.), morning headaches, loss of energy, trouble concentrating, irritability, forgetfulness, mood or behavior changes, anxiety or depression, obesity, and decreased interest in sex. Not all people with sleep apnea experience all of these symptoms and not everyone who has these symptoms has sleep apnea. However, it is recommended that people who are experiencing even a few of these symptoms visit their physician for evaluation. Prompt and proper diagnosis of sleep apnea is an important first step to treating the disorder. Problems associated with untreated sleep apnea include hypertension, coronary artery disease, myocardial infarction, stroke, psychiatric problems, impotence, cognitive dysfunction, memory loss, and death.

Is there any treatment?

For mild cases of obstructive sleep apnea, treatment often consists of using methods to avoid sleeping on one’s back. For people with significant nasal congestion, a decongestant therapy may be prescribed. Patients with obstructive and central apnea should avoid central nervous system depressants such as alcoholic beverages, sedatives and narcotics. Weight loss and diet control are encouraged for overweight patients. Many serious cases of obstructive sleep apnea can be relieved by a treatment called nasal continuous positive airway pressure (nasal CPAP). Nasal CPAP uses a mask-like device and pump that work together to keep the airway open with air pressure during each inspiration. Surgery may benefit some patients by eliminating or reducing the narrowing of the airway due to anatomical defects.

What is the prognosis?
Eliminating the obstruction usually reverses the commonly associated pulmonary and systemic hypertension and cardiac problems of obstructive apnea. Untreated, sleep apnea can greatly affect daytime functioning. Sleep apnea sufferers have a tendency to fall asleep during the day, a potentially deadly consequence of the disorder.

What research is being done?

Sleep apnea is currently one of the most active areas of sleep research. NINDS has notified investigators that it is seeking grant applications in both clinical and basic sleep and wakefulness research, including neurological causes and consequences of sleep apnea. Research on sleep apnea is also funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Institute on Aging.