Sleep apnea is a common, potentially life-threatening sleep disorder. People with sleep apnea experience pauses in their breathing or shallow breathing while they are asleep. These pauses can last anywhere from several seconds to a few minutes.
There are two types of sleep apnea:
- Central sleep apnea is when your brain doesn't "tell" the muscles that control breathing to breathe. As a result, you may stop breathing or not inhale deeply enough to get sufficient oxygen.
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is when your airway collapses or becomes blocked, affecting your ability to breathe while sleeping. This is the most common type of sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea signs
The following are common signs of sleep apnea:
- Loud, chronic (ongoing) snoring
- Jerking legs
- Pauses in breathing, followed by a snort or choking sound when breathing resumes
- Drowsiness during the day (sleep apnea is one of the top causes of excessive daytime sleepiness)
- Morning headaches
- Memory or concentration problems
- Waking up to go to the bathroom frequently during the night
- Depression, irritability, mood swings or personality changes
Sleep apnea causes
These are some reasons you may have a higher risk of sleep apnea:
- You are overweight or obese (around half of all people with sleep apnea are overweight)
- You are male
- You have a family history of sleep apnea
- You have small airways in your nose, throat or mouth
In addition to the above, these are some common causes of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA):
- Enlarged tonsils or tongue
- A collapsed soft palate
- A nasal blockage
How can I get help for sleep apnea?
It's important to see a doctor if you think you or a loved one may have sleep apnea. Because sleep apnea occurs only during sleep, many people with sleep apnea don't realize they have it, and it often goes undiagnosed.
If you have any of the above symptoms or notice them in a loved one, talk to your primary care doctor. He or she can do a physical and, if necessary, run tests to see whether you have sleep apnea or another health problem.
Care for sleep apnea at Rush
- If you or your doctor are unsure which type of sleep apnea you have, your doctor may recommend a sleep study. This test will determine if you have obstructive sleep apnea and, if so, how severe it is.
- If you have been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep specialist at Rush may recommend that you have a full upper airway evaluation. This evaluation typically more advanced diagnostic tests such as a sleep endoscopy or nasal endoscopy. These tests will show why and where your breathing is being blocked.
Your treatment will depend on a variety of factors, including which type of sleep apnea you have and your overall health. Your personalized treatment plan may include one or more of the following:
- Treating related health conditions. If your sleep apnea is caused by another health problem, addressing that condition can help relieve your sleep apnea.
- Lifestyle changes, including losing weight, quitting smoking and lowering your blood pressure, can help you improve your sleep.
- Mouthpieces, which can help people with mild sleep apnea, or those who snore but don't have sleep apnea.
- Breathing devices, including continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV) or bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP). These machines deliver pressurized air to keep your airway open while you sleep.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy to help with issues that can prevent successful CPAP use, such as claustrophobia and mask desensitization.
Surgery. This may be recommended if you have obstructive sleep apnea and are not able to use CPAP.
- Specialists in sleep surgery at Rush offer a full range of advanced procedures, many of which can be performed minimally invasively.
- Which procedure you have depends on what is causing your obstructive sleep apnea. Your sleep surgeon will discuss your options with you.
- Upper airway stimulation therapy (e.g., Inspire), an implantable device that continuously monitors your breathing patterns while you sleep and delivers gentle stimulation to key airway muscles as needed, keeping the airway open.
Why choose Rush for sleep apnea care
- Coordinated sleep care: The Sleep Disorders Service and Research Center at Rush was the first such center in Illinois and the first in the region to receive accreditation from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (then the American Sleep Disorders Association). Since the center opened in 1978, it has welcomed more than 20,000 patients.
- Experience you can trust: Sleep specialists at Rush have expertise diagnosing and treating a full range of conditions that cause central and obstructive sleep apnea — from the common to the most complex. They will work together, and with you, to address the problem and improve your sleep.
- Innovative treatments: Specialists in the Section of Sleep Surgery at Rush are among the first in the U.S. to offer upper airway stimulation therapy (e.g., Inspire therapy). This implantable device may be a good option for people with moderate to severe sleep apnea who cannot tolerate CPAP therapy.