Sleep apnea is a potentially life-threatening disorder that is characterized by repeated pauses or interruptions in breathing during sleep. These pauses are of concern when breathing is suspended for periods of 10 seconds or longer. Ongoing disrupted breathing causes an imbalance between the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the bloodstream as not enough carbon dioxide is exiting and not enough oxygen is entering the body. Sensing this imbalance, the brain sends a message to the body telling it to wake up to restart the breathing process. People with sleep apnea will partially wake – sometimes many times each night, as they struggle to breathe. This process is often accompanied by loud snoring and/or choking sensations.
Because people with sleep apnea are not always completely awake during the episodes, they are often unaware they have a sleeping disorder and it can remain undiagnosed. Doctors estimate that 9.1% of men and 4% of women have sleep apnea. That translates to 18-25 million Americans (1 in every 15) living with sleep apnea. Possibly as few as 5% have been diagnosed or have taken a sleep study.
It is very important to seek medical attention if sleep apnea is suspected. A sufferer can completely stop breathing numerous times per hour for periods lasting from several seconds to several minutes. This situation can quickly turn deadly. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the soft tissue lying at the back of the throat collapses into the airway. The tongue then falls towards the back of the throat increasing the blockage and preventing oxygen from entering the lungs. Central sleep apnea results from the complete drive for breathing originating in the brain during sleep.
The problem worsens when the chest region, diaphragm, and abdomen fight for air. The efforts they make to obtain vital oxygen only cause a further tightening of the blockage. The sufferer must arouse from deep sleep to tense the tongue and remove the soft tissue from the airway.
Because sleep apnea causes carbon dioxide levels to skyrocket in the blood and oxygen levels to decrease, the heart has to pump harder and faster to compensate for the lack of oxygen. People with sleep apnea can technically “die” many times each night. As it is linked to a series of serious heart-related conditions, possible sleep apnea should be investigated at the earliest opportunity.
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