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Sleeping Without Breathing

by Elise Morgan
4 minutes read

Many people suffer from sleep apnea without even realizing it. If you have ever woken up suddenly in the middle of the night, gasping for air, it means that you are among these people.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder during which your breathing repeatedly stops and starts during the sleep. These pauses in breathing are actually called apneas and during these carbon dioxide builds up in your bloodstream. When the carbon dioxide levels are raised, chemoreceptors in the bloodstream alarm the brain to wake you up and breathe the air in, restore the oxygen and eventually fall asleep again.

There are three main types of sleep apnea. The first one, obstructive sleep apnea, is a common type which occurs when your throat muscles relax and stop the breathing. The second type is central sleep apnea, which occurs when the brain fails to properly signalize the muscles to control the breathing. And finally, complex sleep apnea syndrome is a combination of the first two types, and it is also known as treatment-emergent central apnea.


Common Symptoms

Determining the exact type of sleep apnea could be difficult, since the symptoms of obstructive and central apnea can overlap. The most common signs of both conditions include:

  • loud snoring (which can be more prominent in obstructive type),
  • abrupt awakenings accompanied by shortness of breath (common for central apnea),
  • awakening with dry mouth or sore throat,
  • morning headache,
  • insomnia,
  • attention problems,
  • excessive daytime sleepiness,
  • irritability and
  • episodes of breath pauses that another person may witness.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

As we already stated, obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles of your throat relax and in that respect obstruct the airway, preventing you to breathe adequately. When this blockage occurs, the oxygen level lowers in your blood and the brain is signaled to wake you up. Also, this type of sleep apnea can be caused by some bone deformities or enlarged tissue of your nose, throat or mouth. Your tonsils may be enlarged, for example, and when you lie down, they can press down on your airway and cause apnea.

Central sleep apnea, on the other hand, is caused when your brain is not properly transmitting the signals to your breathing muscles, meaning that for some time you are not making an effort to breathe. This type of apnea can also be caused by numerous conditions that affect the ability of the brainstem, such as some drugs or medical conditions.

Treatment for Sleep Apnea

Numerous treatments and therapies can help your reduce or stop your sleep apnea. If you suffer from a mild version of this condition, your doctor may recommend changing your lifestyle a bit, by quitting smoking or losing weight and changing your diet. However, if you have more severe forms of sleep apnea, you should opt for some therapies or even surgeries.

Therapies that can help your apnea include the use of devices that can regulate your airway pressure. You can opt for continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP), Auto-CPAP, bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP), expiratory positive airway pressure (EPAP) and some oral appliances. All of these devices help your regulate and adjust the airway pressure so you would avoid the apneas and increase the oxygen in your blood.

If any other treatments fail you, your last resort is surgery. The goal of any surgery for sleep apnea treatment is to enlarge the airway through your nose or throat. Surgical procedures that you can choose from are:

  • Tissue removal (uvulapolatopharyngoplasty) during which the doctor removes the tissue form the back of your mouth and top of the throat, and sometimes even your tonsils. It is less effective than CPAP but it is proven to be reliable for treating obstructive sleep apnea.
  • ”A nose job”, medically said – rhinoplasty is another solution that can be beneficial. You can adjust your nose in such a way that you are letting enough air go through to your lungs, thus minimizing the snoring and apneas. If your nose is crooked and blocks the airway in one of your nostrils, it is good idea to even it up and supply more oxygen to your blood.
  • Another solution for obstructive sleep apnea is jaw repositioning. This procedure involves moving of the jaw forward from the remainder of your face bones, enlarging the space behind your tongue and soft palate. It is also known as maxillomandibular advancement, and it makes the obstruction less likely to occur.

Of course, there are some less invasive and simpler ways of preventing the obstruction, such as sleeping on your side instead on your back, and to prevent further rolling onto your back you may put a tennis ball in your pocket on the back of your pajama top. Also, right before going to sleep, you can try holding a pen or chewing a gum until your jaw starts to hurt.

Sleep apnea is one serious sleep disorder and it is important to diagnose it on time. Ask your loved ones if they have noticed some of the symptoms, and also check on each other’s breathing during the night.

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