Don't Sleep on Sleep Apnea

man sleeping wearing an eye maskMore than 100 million people worldwide experience sleep apnea, but most people don’t know much about it. 

What is sleep apnea?

People with sleep apnea stop breathing for a short time while asleep, often several times throughout the night. There are two types: 

  • Chronic sleep apnea is the most common; it happens when the airway becomes blocked during sleep, often because the muscles in the back of the throat relax too much. Breathing usually starts again with a loud snort.
  • Central sleep apnea happens when the brain doesn’t send the right signals to the muscles that control breathing.

If both types are present, this is called “complex sleep apnea.”


The most common symptoms of sleep apnea are loud snoring (don’t worry—your spouse will let you know) and still feeling tired even after a full night’s sleep. Other signs and symptoms include:

  • Choking or gasping while asleep
  • Waking up during the night and feeling short of breath
  • Chronic daytime sleepiness
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Dry mouth or sore throat in the morning
  • Irritability or depression

Causes and risk factors

We don’t know exactly what causes obstructive sleep apnea, but there are some risk factors that make it more likely for someone to develop the condition:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Male
  • Smoking
  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • A large neck (circumference greater than 40cm)
  • Age 50 or older
  • African-American, Hispanic or Pacific Islander
  • Deviated septum
  • Allergies or nasal congestion

Central sleep apnea is seen more often in people who take narcotic pain medications or who have underlying medical conditions, such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Neurological conditions
  • Spinal injury
  • Brain stem injury


Treatment of central sleep apnea starts with treating the underlying condition. If you’re diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor may talk with you about a variety of lifestyle changes that could help, in addition to medical treatments.

Lifestyle changes

These changes could help you reduce your risk of sleep apnea:

  • Losing weight
  • Quitting smoking
  • Avoiding caffeine, alcohol and sleeping pills
  • Limiting food two hours before going to bed
  • Exercising regularly
  • Learning certain throat exercises to strengthen the muscles

Medical treatments

  • CPAP or another device to help you breathe while asleep
  • Dental devices to keep the throat open
  • Medical implant that works like a pacemaker to keep you breathing
  • Surgery to make your airway larger

Sleep apnea is a serious, and sometimes dangerous condition, but it can be treated. That’s why it’s so important to talk to your health care provider if you suspect that you or a loved one may be affected.

Speak with your primary care physician if you feel you are experiencing the symptoms above. For more information about sleep apnea, other sleep disorders or a physician referral, call (866) 328-9932.