Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Sleep Apnea from Harvard Medical School Health Topics A-Z
What Is It?

Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes people to stop breathing for short periods during sleep. These periods are called apneas. Apneas usually last between 10 and 30 seconds. In severe cases, apneas can happen many hundreds of times each night. People with untreated sleep apnea are more likely to develop high blood pressure.

Apneas disrupt a person's ability to get a good night's sleep, making them less alert during the day. This can lead to accidents. People with untreated sleep apnea are up to seven times more likely to be involved in motor vehicle accidents.

There are two types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apneaoccurs when the airway in your nose or throat becomes partially or completely blocked. It can be blocked by large tonsils, a large tongue or by too much tissue in the airway. Excess tissue in the airway is more common in people who are overweight. When airway muscles relax during sleep, this extra tissue can block the breathing passages.

  • Central sleep apneaoccurs when the brain stem, the area of the brain that controls breathing, is damaged. The brain stem may be damaged by an infection or stroke.

Symptoms

Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include excessive sleepiness during waking hours. Loud snoring is another symptom, and the person's bed partner may be the first to notice this problem. Morning headache and dry mouth can occur. Obesity is common, though not all people with sleep apnea are overweight.

Diagnosis

If your doctor suspects sleep apnea, he or she is likely to do the following during your visit:

  • Ask whether you snore and/or feel excessively sleepy during the day.

  • Perform a physical examination. Your doctor will look for any narrowing inside your mouth and throat.

  • Check the size of your neck. The larger your neck, the more likely you are to develop obstructive sleep apnea.

  • Check your blood pressure. People with sleep apnea are more likely to develop high blood pressure.

A sleep study is needed to confirm the diagnosis. Sleep studies traditionally have been performed overnight, at a sleep center. However, recent research suggests home sleep studies may sometimes be sufficient to make the diagnosis.

During a formal study done at a sleep center, sensors are placed on your finger, scalp and chest. The sensors on your scalp detect brain waves to measure how long it takes you to fall asleep, how long it takes you to enter different stages of sleep and how often you wake up during the night. The monitor on your finger measures the oxygen level in your blood. Monitors on your chest record your heart rate and breathing, as well as how often you stop breathing. A monitor is also placed just inside your nostrils to measure air flow.

Home sleep studies are not as complete as studies done in sleep centers. The home equipment can measure blood oxygen levels, chest movement and nasal airflow. Some also track head movement and heart rate and record snoring levels.

Expected Duration

How long sleep apnea lasts depends on its cause and on the effectiveness of treatment. Generally, sleep apnea is a chronic disorder. This means you'll be dealing with it for a lifetime. For people with central sleep apnea, how long the problem lasts depends on treatment for the underlying neurological or cardiovascular disorders.

Prevention

You can help to prevent obstructive sleep apnea by maintaining a healthy weight.

To reduce sleep apnea symptoms, avoid alcohol and sedatives.

Treatment

To treat obstructive sleep apnea, many people sleep with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device. A CPAP device is a mask that fits over your mouth and nose. It forces your airways open with a stream of air. This allows you to breathe more easily. Weight loss may be helpful in some cases. For others, surgical procedures (to remove excess tissue in the back of the throat, for example) may help.

When we fall asleep, all of our muscles relax including the muscles that hold our jaw forward. Some people with obstructive sleep apnea partially close their airway when the jaw moves backward during sleep. These people may benefit from a fitted mouth piece to wear at night that keeps the jaw forward.

For central sleep apnea, treating any underlying neurological or cardiovascular disorders may eliminate the problem. CPAP may also be useful.

When To Call a Professional

Call your doctor if:

  • You are excessively sleepy during waking hours

  • You snore a lot

  • Your bed partner notices that your breathing sometimes stops when you sleep

Prognosis

Most people with obstructive sleep apnea can sleep and feel better if they follow the treatment plan recommended by their doctor.

Additional Info

American Sleep Apnea Association

1424 K Street NW

Suite 302

Washington, DC 20005

Phone: (202) 293-3650

Fax: (202)293-3656

http://www.sleepapnea.org/

National Sleep Foundation

729 15th St. NW

4th Floor

Washington, DC 20005

Phone: (202) 347-3471

Fax: (202) 247-2472

http://www.sleepfoundation.org/

Copyright 2016 Harvard Health Publications

Related Credo Articles

Full text Article sleep apnea
The Columbia Encyclopedia

episodes of interrupted breathing during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea is a common disorder in which relaxation of muscles in the throat repeatedly

Full text Article Sleep Apnea
Encyclopedia of Special Education: A Reference for the Education of Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Disabilities and Other Exceptional Individuals

Sleep apnea is characterized by recurrent apneas (breathing cessations) during sleep, which can result in a temporary cessation or reduced flow of o

Full text Article Sleep Apnea
Gale Encyclopedia of Nursing and Allied Health

Definition Sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing stops for more than ten seconds during sleep. Sleep apnea is a major, though often unrec

See more from Credo