Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2005;72(7):1319-1320

What is sleep apnea?

People with sleep apnea (say: AP-nee-uh) stop breathing for 10 to 30 seconds at a time while they are sleeping. This can happen hundreds of times every night. If you have sleep apnea, you may wake up from deep sleep. Sleep apnea keeps you from getting enough rest and can cause other health problems.

There are two kinds of sleep apnea: central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea (or OSA, for short). Nine out of 10 people with sleep apnea have OSA. If you have OSA, something blocks your airway and you don’t get enough air into your lungs. Your airway might be blocked by your tongue, tonsils, or uvula (say: YOOV-yoo-la). The uvula is the little piece of flesh that hangs down in the back of your throat. Other things that can cause OSA are large amounts of fatty tissue in the throat or relaxed throat muscles.

Central sleep apnea is rare. It is caused by a problem with the central nervous system. If you have this type of apnea, the muscles you use to breathe don’t get the “go-ahead” signal from your brain.

How do I know if I have sleep apnea?

The person you sleep with may notice it first. You or that person may notice heavy snoring or long pauses in your breathing while you’re asleep. You may not remember waking up during the night, but you might feel sleepy during the day. You might fall asleep at work or while you are driving or talking. You may be grumpy or have less interest in sex. You might forget things easily or have headaches in the morning.

If you think you might have sleep apnea, talk with your doctor. He or she might want you to go to a sleep center for tests.

Is sleep apnea dangerous?

Your risk of heart disease and stroke is higher if serious sleep apnea is not treated. You also are more likely to be in a car crash if you drive while you’re sleepy. If you have sleep apnea, it’s very important to get treatment.

Is there anything I can do to help my sleep apnea?

Yes. Making a few changes in your life might help you feel better. If you drink alcohol or take medicine to help you sleep, you should stop. These things relax the muscles in the back of your throat and make it harder for you to breathe. If you are overweight, lose weight. Sleep on your side instead of on your back.

If you still have problems after making these changes, your doctor may have you wear a special mask over your nose and mouth while you are sleeping. This treatment is called “continuous positive airway pressure,” (CPAP, for short). The mask will keep your airway open by adding pressure to the air you breathe.

CPAP helps most people with sleep apnea. Sometimes surgery is needed to remove tonsils or extra tissue from the throat.

Is sleep apnea common?

Doctors think that about 12 million Americans have sleep apnea. People who are older than 40 years, especially men, are more likely to have sleep apnea, but it can affect anyone at any age.

Will this problem change my life?

If you have sleep apnea, it already may have affected you more than you know. Things probably will get better after your doctor diagnoses your sleep apnea. If your sleep problem can be solved by not using alcohol or sleep medicine, losing weight, or sleeping on your side, you’ll start feeling much more rested and have more energy very soon. If you use CPAP, you should feel better soon. If you need surgery, you’ll be able to sleep better afterward.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor.

American Sleep Apnea Association

Telephone: 1–202–293–3650

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