What is sleep apnea?

What is sleep apnea?

What is sleep apnea?

There exists a number of sleep disorders which have an impact on sleep patterns and the health of an individual. A group of such disorders is called sleep breathing disorders. According to the second edition of the International Classification of Sleep Disorders (ICSD-2)1, there are five major categories:

  1. Obstructive sleep apnea
  2. Central sleep apnea
  3. Sleep-related hypoventilation
  4. Sleep-related hypoventilation resulting from a medical condition
  5. Other sleep-related breathing disorders.

The most common of the five are the Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and the Central sleep apnea (CSA). The OSA is defined by pauses in breathing while you sleep. These pauses are caused by a complete or partial collapse of the upper airway during sleep. The figure below demonstrates this principle.

Often undiagnosed

If the obstruction is complete, we call it obstructive apnea. On the other hand, if the obstruction is partial then we have an obstructive hypopnea. The CSA is characterized by an absence of respiratory effort which causes the cessation of breathing or its reduction.

The problem with sleep disorders is that they are often not diagnosed. Individuals are often unaware of the problem, and doctors are often unable to diagnose it because it only occurs during sleep. No amount of blood test or internal testing can detect such a disorder.

Why is it important to treat sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea affects our sleep pattern, causing a lack of sleep. In turn, sleep deprivation has a tremendous impact on individuals. Multiple studies have shown the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on a subject’s health and psychological wellbeing. Effects vary from mood changes, poor social behavior and even bodily pain1. Most importantly, sleep deprivation effects have an additive effect over time.

Moreover, some studies have found correlations between sleep deprivation and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, depression and cancer3-6.

Unfortunately, as mentioned previously, individuals often are unaware of their condition, making the affected person accustomed and normalized to the effects of sleep deprivation.

What are the most common symptoms of sleep apnea?

  • According to the Quebec Pulmonary Association, the following are the most common symptoms of sleep apnea7:
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Impaired alertness
  • Nocturnal awakening
  • Snoring
  • Witnessed apneas (usually by the person’s partner)

All of the above symptoms are not only cyclical, but have the ability to severely alter a person’s cognitive capacities. Sleep apnea affects short and long term memory, reducing a person’s attention span. In turn, these effects increase the risk of accidents that are linked to tasks of a person’s everyday life. In one article, it was shown that people suffering from sleep apnea are 2 to 10 times more likely to get into a car accident6. The general lack of sleep affects a person’s behaviour. Mood swings, irritability and decreases in attentiveness and drive are part of the effects. Unfortunately, if left unattended, these effects become increasingly harder to deal with, which might lead to depression.

What are the risk factors of sleep apnea?

  • Obesity
  • Male sex
  • Menopause
  • Nasal obstruction
  • Large tonsils
  • Large tongue base
  • Narrow upper airways

Some of the factors are treatable, whereas other are not. Treatments are usually based on acting upon modifiable and/or treatable factors.

Sources of this page:

  1. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. International Classification of Sleep Disorders, ed 2. Westchester, IL: American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 2005: 297.
  2. Haack M, Mullington JM. Sistained sleep restriction reduces emotional and physical well-being. Pain 2005;1 19:56-64
  3. Hublin C, Partinen M, Koskenvuo M, Kaprio J. Sleep and mortality: A population-based 22-year follow-up study. Sleep 2007;30:1 245-1253.
  4. Meisinger C, Heier M, Lowel H, Schneider A, Doring A. Sleep duration and sleep complaints and risk of myocardial infarction in middle-aged men and women from the general population: The MONICA/KORA Augsburg cohort study. Sleep 2007;30:1 121-1127.
  5. Stang A, Dragano N, Poole C, et al. Daily siesta, cardiovascular risk factors and measures of subclinical atherosclerosis: Results of the Heinz Nixdorf Recall Study. Sleep 2007;30: 1111-1119.
  6. “Apnée Du Sommeil.” Apnée Du Sommeil. Association Pulmonaire Du Québec, 2016. Web. 19 Jan. 2016.