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What Is Sleep Apnea and How Is It Treated?

Posted by Johnson Memorial Health on Oct 15, 2015

Sleep apnea is a disorder where you have several pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. The pauses may be a couple of seconds o even minutes. They can occur many times throughout the night. Sleep apnea is a common chronic condition and is one of the top reasons people are tired during the day. The pauses in sleep cause you to go from deep sleep to light sleep.



Sleep apnea is undiagnosed because it doesn't show up on a blood test. Most of the time, a family member will notice the signs and that leads to diagnosis. There are two types of sleep apnea.

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea occurs when an airway is blocked during sleep causing breathing to stop or pause. This is more common in overweight people, but it could happen to anyone.
  • Central Sleep Apnea occurs when your brain doesn't send the correct signals to your breathing muscles. This results in no effort to breathe. Snoring does not typically occur with this type of sleep apnea.


When you sleep,your muscles relax along with the rest of your body. Normally, this doesn't cause a problem, but if you have sleep apnea your airway can become blocked.

  • Tongue and throat muscles relax
  • Tongue and windpipe are larger than normal.
  • Overweight
  • Small airway passages
  • Aging

Untreated sleep apnea can lead to more problems such as stress related issues. Frequent drops in blood oxygen levels release a stress hormone which can raise your heart rate and increase risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. It can also lead to changes in how your body uses energy which can lead to obesity and diabetes.

Signs & Symptoms

Obstructive sleep apnea is a common chronic condition. More than half of the people who suffer with sleep apnea are overweight or have high blood pressure. It's also linked to those with small airway passages, smoking, and diabetes. While snoring is a common symptom, it's not the only one.

  • snoring
  • daytime sleepiness
  • morning headaches
  • not being able to concentrate
  • memory or learning problems
  • irritable, depressed, or having mood swings
  • waking up frequently to urinate
  • dry mouth or sore throat upon waking


Since sleep apnea is not something that shows up on a blood test, your doctor will have to look a bit further into your life. Usually a family member will notice the signs, and let you know there is a problem, but sometimes you notice there is a problem. Some people find it helpful to keep a sleep journal to keep track of hours slept and how you felt. You can also write things like how you felt during the day and if you remember getting up multiple times during the night to use the restroom. All of these things will help your doctor come to a diagnosis. She will also want to know how loudly and how often your snoring occurs, so you might want to talk to a family member.The doctor will look in your mouth and throat for enlarged tissues that could be causing problems. Then, you will usually have to do a sleep study. There are two types of sleep studies.

  • Polysomnogram (PSG) is the most common sleep study for diagnosing sleep apnea. It records brain and eye activity, heart rate, and blood pressure. This test is usually done at a sleep center. You'll go to sleep as usual, but with some sensors hooked up to your body that enables the testing center to see what is happening throughout the night.
  • A home based test with a portable monitor may also be used. The monitor will record some of the same information as the PSG, but you will be able to sleep at your home rather than a sleep center. Sometimes the results of the home based test will lead to having to do a full PSG for more information.


Sleep Apnea is treated in a variety of ways, but medicine is not one of them. The goal is to restore regular breathing during the night and reduce snoring and daytime sleepiness.

The treatment for sleep apnea may improve other areas of your health too. Some have noticed improved blood pressure, and reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Here are some example of the treatment for sleep apnea.

  • Avoid alcohol and medicines that make you sleepy because they make it harder for your throat to stay open when you sleep.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight or obese.
  • Sleep on your side instead of your back. You can look for special pillows that prevent you from sleeping on your back.
  • Talk to your doctor about methods of keeping your nasal passages open at night. Sometimes these include nasal sprays or allergy medications.
  • Stop smoking.
  • A mouthpiece can be made to fit into your mouth. They are also used for people who snore loudly, but do not have sleep apnea.
  • A CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine is used for moderate to severe sleep apnea. The machine blows air into your throat to keep your airway open while you sleep.
  • Surgery can widen the airway passages in some severe cases. This can include shrinking tissue, removing some extra tissue in the mouth or resetting the jaw.


Trouble Sleeping? Learn More About a Sleep Study. The Sleep Care Center of Johnson Memorial Hospital can help you get a full  night’s rest just a few miles from your own bed.

Topics: Sleep Apnea, Sleep