Identifying and Treating Sleep Apnea

sleep apnea

Sleep apnea can be understood as a potentially severe sleep disorder in which breathing starts and stops repeatedly while you sleep(1). Treating sleep apnea is common but the first step is to identify the underlying cause.

There are several known types of sleep apnea conditions which include central sleep apnea, complex sleep apnea syndrome, and obstructive sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is very common and it usually occurs when a patient’s throat muscles relax. On the other hand, central sleep apnea occurs when a patient’s brain does not send accurate signals to the muscles that facilitate breathing. Complex sleep apnea syndrome occurs in situations where a patient has both central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea. About 30 million people in the United States have sleep apnea, but only 6 million are diagnosed with the condition (2). 

Below are some important things that you should know about treating sleep apnea. 

Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

In most cases, the signs and symptoms of central and obstructive sleep apnea tend to overlap, making it hard for patients to know the type of sleep apnea that they have. Some common symptoms of central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Irritability
  • Loud snoring
  • Morning headache
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Waking up with a dry mouth

Loud snoring may seem like the most obvious symptom of sleep apnea, but the truth is that not everyone with sleep apnea snoring. Therefore, if you have any of the above symptoms, it is imperative for you to seek the assistance of a doctor.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

The causes of sleep apnea vary depending on the type of sleep apnea that a patient has. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles found in the back of the throat relax. When this happens, a patient’s airway narrows or even closes when they breathe in. As air is prevented from passing through normally, a person usually wakes up, engages the muscles in their throat, and takes several gasps or deep breaths, often accompanied by sounds like snorting or choking (3).

On the other hand, central sleep apnea is caused by the failure of the brain to transmit signals to the muscles that make breathing possible. As a result, breathing may become shallower and have temporary pauses. (3)

There is no obvious reason why these things happen. However, some of the risk factors for sleep apnea include being overweight, having thicker neck circumference, being male, having close relatives with sleep apnea, the use of alcohol, heart disorders, and having a narrow airway, among other factors.


If you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, you can find comfort in knowing that the issue is treatable. There are several therapies and treatments that your doctor may opt to apply. Some of the common therapies used in helping people with sleep apnea include continuous positive airway pressure and oral appliances. In severe cases, the only way to deal with sleep apnea may be going for surgery, which might involve tissue removal, implants, jaw repositioning, or nerve stimulation.

The Bottom Line

Overall, it is known that sleep apnea can be a serious issue that is associated with interrupted breathing during sleep. It is up to four times as common in men as in women, but women are more likely to have sleep apnea during pregnancy and after menopause. In older adults, the gender gap narrows after women reach menopause.  If the symptoms of  sleep apnea are persistent or severe, additional treatment may be recommended to improve breathing while also trying to resolve the underlying problem. The good news is that sleep apnea is an issue that can be treated in a number of ways.

(1) What Is Sleep Apnea?
(2) What doctors wish patients knew about sleep apnea
(3) What Is Sleep Apnea?

by Cara Lucas

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