Millions of individuals and families worldwide are familiar with this scenario: An individual drifts off to sleep, and within minutes begins to snore, perhaps quietly at first. Breathing becomes irregular; snoring grows louder. There may be a period of relative silence during which the individual’s chest wall appears to move as if he or she is breathing, but no snoring is heard. Suddenly there is an “explosion” of noisy breathing and motion as the individual arouses and possibly awakens.
This pattern may be repeated dozens or even hundreds of times per night, resulting in fragmented and non-restorative sleep for the snorer, and often a great deal of annoyance for the remainder of the household.
The above scenario describes obstructive sleep apnea, the most widely recognized of a group of ailments categorized as sleep disordered breathing. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) results from partial or complete blockage of the upper airway during sleep. The word apnea literally means ‘not breathing.’ The obvious result of this blockage is snoring. Other results are less obvious, but may carry far more serious health consequences. These can include restless and non-restorative sleep, shortness of breath, headaches, and excessive daytime sleepiness.
In individuals without OSA, muscles that hold open the upper airway relax during sleep, but there is still a sufficient opening to permit airflow with breathing. In persons with OSA, the airway is already narrowed, and when the muscles relax the airway can become blocked.
Obesity is a major risk factor for OSA, since a layer of fat may be deposited around the airway, causing partial narrowing even during waking periods. Other known risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea are being of the male gender, age greater than 65 years, and structural abnormalities of the face, head, or neck, including increased neck circumference.
OSA is a dangerous condition that should be treated. Lack of sleep or disturbed sleep can cause individuals to be overly fatigued during the day and can be especially worrisome for those who are behind the wheel, as accidents are more likely. Over time, other health problems can stem from OSA including high blood pressure, stroke, and even early death.
If you or someone you know believes they may have obstructive sleep apnea, your physician will likely recommend a sleep study. At Mount Nittany Health’s Sieg Neuroscience Center in State College, the sleep lab is open seven nights a week for diagnostic testing. Using state-of-the-art equipment in a comfortable setting, our physicians and specially trained technicians work with you to diagnose and treat your sleep disorders.
Fortunately, if OSA is determined to be the cause of an individual’s extreme fatigue, it can be treated very effectively. One of the more common treatments is through use of a continuous positive airway pressure machine, known as CPAP. The machine blows air into a mask that is worn over the mouth and nose during sleep, allowing the patient to breathe.
If you would like more information about sleep studies or worry that you have symptoms of OSA, speak with your physician.