The Greek word “apnea” literally means “without breath.” With sleep apnea, breathing pauses occur multiple times during sleep. The pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes and can occur more than five times per hour, to as high as 100 times per hour. (Fewer than five times per hour is normal). Sometimes when breathing resumes again, it is accompanied by a loud snort or choking sound. Because sleep is interrupted, people with sleep apnea often feel tired and irritable the next day.


Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), the most common type, is caused by a blockage of the airway, usually when the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses. The less common form, central sleep apnea, happens if the area of your brain that controls breathing doesn’t send the correct signals to your breathing muscles.


Untreated OSA has been linked to high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, work-related accidents and depression. According to the American Sleep Association, OSA affects more than 12 million Americans.


Sleep apnea is almost twice as common in men as it is in women. Other risk factors include:

  • being overweight, as extra fat tissue around the neck makes it harder to keep the airway open,
  • being over age 40,
  • smoking,
  • having a family history of sleep apnea, and
  • having a nasal obstruction due to a deviated septum, allergies or sinus problem.


A sleep study is usually required for a formal diagnosis. Weight loss will go a long way toward improving OSA. The most common treatment is a CPAP machine. CPAPs use mild air pressure to keep your airways open. The air is delivered through a mask that fits over your nose and mouth, or only your nose. Consult with your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea to discuss the treatment plan that is right for you.

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