Sleep apnea is a disorder that is characterized by abnormal or even cessation of breathing while a person is asleep. It derives from the Greek word apnea, which means "without breath". The pauses in breathing can occur as many as 30 times in an hour, depriving the body of oxygen. If left untreated, the side affects of sleep apnea can be serious and sometimes even life threatening. It can contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, as well as low energy levels during a person's waking hours. Sleep apnea is diagnosed by a polysomnography, also known as a sleep study, which can be done in a sleep center or hospital.
There are three types of sleep apnea, with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) the most common. The soft tissues in the back of throat closing and opening while the body’s muscles relax during sleep cause OSA. OSA is seen more often in the elderly than the young, with men more likely to suffer from OSA than women. Symptoms include loud snoring and restless sleep patterns. Risk factors for OSA include obesity, smoking and diabetes.
A second type of sleep apnea is called central sleep apnea, which originates in a person's respiratory center of the brain. It is marked by a total cessation of breathing, with no struggling or effort to breathe. Following these episodes, the person may breathe rapidly to compensate for the lost oxygen.
Mixed sleep apnea, the third type, is a combination of both OSA and central sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is a common disorder, with more than 18 million sufferers in the United States alone. Although sleep apnea is more common in the overweight and the aged, people are at risk at any age, even the very young. Despite its prevalence, most sleep apnea sufferers are left untreated, with many in the medical profession still unaware of the consequences. Untreated sleep apnea can cause weight gain, impotence, headaches and other medical ailments. Secondary effects from sleep apnea can include hampered job performance and even an increased risk of vehicular accidents caused by low energy levels and drowsiness.
There are several methods used to treat sleep apnea, including behavioral modification as well as mechanical intervention and surgery. Interestingly, playing the didgeridoo, an Australian wind instrument, has been found to reduce the episodes of sleep apnea. Researchers think its because the instrument strengthens the muscles in the upper airway preventing their collapse during sleep. Further research is ongoing into sleep apnea and more treatments are expected in the near future.