Sleep apnea: The temporary stoppage of breathing during sleep, often resulting in daytime sleepiness. Apnea is a Greek word that means "want of breath."
The most common form of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. In obstructive sleep apnea, the muscles of the soft palate around the base of the tongue and the uvula relax, obstructing the airway. The airway obstruction causes the level of oxygen in the blood to fall (hypoxia), increases the stress on the heart, elevates blood pressure, and prevents the patient from entering REM sleep, the restful and restorative stage of sleep. In other words, sleep apnea causes deprivation of quality sleep.
The symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include loud snoring and/or abnormal pattern of snoring with pauses and gasps. Other symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness, memory changes, depression, and irritability. In some patients sleep apnea can contribute to high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, and heart attack.
Obstructive sleep apnea typically affects middle-age, overweight men, and may affect women in later years. Obstructive apnea can be aggravated by alcohol, sleeping pills and tranquilizers taken at bedtime.
Sleep laboratories are now available to monitor different stages of sleep, diagnose sleep apnea, determine the type (obstructive or central) and severity of sleep apnea, and design treatment. General measures in treating obstructive sleep apnea include losing excessive weight, avoiding alcohol and sedatives, sleeping on one side, and medications to relieve nasal congestion.
CPAP -- which stands for continuous positive airway pressure -- is an effective treatment for sleep apnea. A mask is worn over the nose during sleep while compressed air is gently forced through the nose to keep the airway open. Different patients need different mask sizes and different pressure levels for optimal treatment results.
See also: CPAP.