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Sleep Apnea: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Sleep apnea is a somewhat common condition in which normal breathing actually stops during sleep. These moments of apnea can happen many times while you’re asleep. My doctor informed me that the disruption in my breathing could be a sign of an issue regarding the signals in my brain. Just for a brief moment, the brain can literally ‘forget’ to tell the muscles to breathe.

What Causes Sleep Apnea?

Photo Courtesy of David Goehring

Photo Courtesy of David Goehring

In many cases, certain underlying health disorders are the culprit of sleep apnea like being overweight. That’s originally why I visited my doctor; but later discovered I had sleep apnea. From what I understand, this is quite common in obese people since excess weight can enlarge the tissues in and around a person’s airways. During an episode of sleep apnea, the brainstem doesn’t properly signal the muscles that tell you to breath. Because the brainstem is connected to the spinal cord, any medical disorders that affect the brainstem, heart, or spinal cord can lead to sleep apnea.

Here are some examples of conditions related to sleep apnea:

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Encephalitis (brain inflammation)
  • Radiation treatments or surgery on the spine
  • Cervical spine arthritis
  • Parkinson’s disease (an age-associated deterioration of key nerve systems that impact muscle control, balance, and overall movement)
  • Congestive heart failure

Symptoms

The basic symptoms of sleep apnea include brief periods when your breathing stops during sleep. For some people, they show signs of extreme shallow breathing rather than actually stopping. The lack of air itself is what caused me to frequently wake up through the night. Obviously, this makes me very tired the next day. The sleep apnea episodes cause insomnia. Other symptoms include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Speech pattern changes
  • Changes in the voice
  • Overall weakness throughout the body

Diagnosis

My doctor ordered a polysomnography, which is a sleep study test that’s used to diagnose sleep apnea. During a polysomnography test, your breathing patterns, lung function, heart rate, brain activity, and oxygen levels are monitored.

Treatment

The first step in treating sleep apnea is managing any underlying medical issues that may be causing it in the first place. The regulation of air pressure and oxygen supplementation during sleeping are both effective in treating people who deal with sleep apnea. Some of these treatments include:

ASV (Adaptive Servo-Ventilation)

ASV monitors your breathing patterns while you sleep. The innovative system ‘remembers’ your patterns. The system is pressurized and works to help normalize your breathing patterns in order to prevent any future episodes of sleep apnea.

BPAP (Bi-level Positive Air Pressure)

BPAP regulates the air pressure at a higher level once you inhale and back down to a lower level once you exhale.

CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure)

CPAP provides a continuous source of pressure in the airways when sleeping. While sleeping at night, a mask is worn over your mouth and nose that delivers a continuous stream of pressurized air.

Outlook

For most people struggling with sleep apnea, they respond well to ongoing treatment. The benefits of sleep apnea treatment are varied based on the cause of the condition.

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