Sleep apnea is a potentially life threatening condition in which breathing stops hundreds of times each night. It is most common among overweight men. You wake up briefly each time breathing stops and then fall asleep again, never knowing you have awakened. This significantly disturbs sleep.
Over time, you will experience the fatigue, lethargy, and headaches that are common with many sleep disorders. A sleep partner may be the first to notice this stop-and-start pattern of breathing or very loud snoring.
There are two different types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common and occurs when the upper airway is blocked by excess tissue such as a large uvula (the appendage that hangs at the back of the throat), tongue, or tonsils. When sleep causes muscles to relax, the excess tissue tends to fall into the airway and obstructs breathing. People at risk for obstructive sleep apnea include those who snore or have high blood pressure or thick necks. Half of all people with collar sizes of over 171/2 inches suffer from sleep apnea.
Central sleep apnea occurs when an important part of the brain fails to send the necessary messages to control the muscles that automatically breathe for you at night (when awake, you breathe without these particular brain messages).
In addition to the symptoms that can accompany any sleep disorder, people with sleep apnea can have overworked hearts because the heart tries to pump blood harder when it senses low oxygen levels at night.
People with sleep apnea syndrome also risk death from failure to breathe at night and have a higher risk of stroke, heart attack, and congestive heart failure. Sleeping pills should not be used because they can interfere with the natural impulse to wake up. See Treating Sleep Apnea Syndrome (right).