Sleep apnea (AP-ne-ah) is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep.
Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. They may occur 30 times or more an hour. Typically, normal breathing then starts again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound.
Sleep apnea usually is a chronic (ongoing) condition that disrupts your sleep. When your breathing pauses or becomes shallow, you’ll often move out of deep sleep and into light sleep.
As a result, the quality of your sleep is poor, which makes you tired during the day. Sleep apnea is a leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness.
Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed. Doctors usually can't detect the condition during routine office visits. Also, no blood test can help diagnose the condition.
Most people who have sleep apnea don't know they have it because it only occurs during sleep. A family member or bed partner might be the first to notice signs of sleep apnea.
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. In this condition, the airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep. This causes shallow breathing or breathing pauses.
When you try to breathe, any air that squeezes past the blockage can cause loud snoring. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in people who are overweight, but it can affect anyone. For example, small children who have enlarged tonsil tissues in their throats may have obstructive sleep apnea.
The animation below shows how obstructive sleep apnea occurs. Click the "start" button to play the animation. Written and spoken explanations are provided with each frame. Use the buttons in the lower right corner to pause, restart, or replay the animation, or use the scroll bar below the buttons to move through the frames.
The animation shows how the airway can collapse and block air flow to the lungs, causing sleep apnea.
Central sleep apnea is a less common type of sleep apnea. This disorder occurs if the area of your brain that controls your breathing doesn't send the correct signals to your breathing muscles. As a result, you'll make no effort to breathe for brief periods.
Central sleep apnea can affect anyone. However, it's more common in people who have certain medical conditions or use certain medicines.
Central sleep apnea can occur with obstructive sleep apnea or alone. Snoring typically doesn't happen with central sleep apnea.
This article mainly focuses on obstructive sleep apnea.
Untreated sleep apnea can:
- Increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity, and diabetes
- Increase the risk of, or worsen, heart failure
- Make arrhythmias (ah-RITH-me-ahs), or irregular heartbeats, more likely
- Increase the chance of having work-related or driving accidents
Sleep apnea is a chronic condition that requires long-term management. Lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, surgery, and breathing devices can successfully treat sleep apnea in many people.
Sleep Apnea Research: The HeartBeat Study06/07/2012
In this video—presented by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health—Dr. Susan Redline of Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women's Hospital discusses her ongoing sleep apnea research. Sleep apnea is a common disorder that can raise your risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), heart failure, obesity, and diabetes.
One of Dr. Redline's projects, the HeartBEAT Study, is comparing treatments for sleep apnea to see whether they lower the risk of heart disease. The results of this research, which is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, may help reduce deaths from heart attacks and strokes.
Living With and Managing Sleep Apnea05/18/2011
This video—presented by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health—shows how Jim, the father of two young girls, has coped with having sleep apnea. Symptoms such as waking up tired and falling asleep while driving long distances made Jim concerned about his health. While Jim was sleeping, his wife noticed snoring and long periods of silence followed by gasps.
Wanting a better quality of life, Jim sought the advice of his doctor, who recommended a sleep study. As a result of the sleep study, Jim was diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea and prescribed treatment with a CPAP machine. CPAP provides mild air pressure to keep the airways open during sleep.
Jim explains that adjusting to CPAP treatment was hard at first, and his inability to stick with the treatment led to more symptoms. However, after using the CPAP machine regularly, Jim feels better and has more energy to do activities with his children.
For more information about living with and managing sleep apnea, go to the Health Topics Sleep Apnea article.