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Every age group, every social class, every race is affected by sleep disorders. In fact, according to Carolyn Simpson, author of “Coping With Sleep Disorders”, approximately 40 million Americans suffer from some form of chronic sleep disorder, with twenty to thirty million experiencing intermittent sleep-related problems such as sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is one of the most prevalent and precarious sleep disorders in existence. The disorder is characterized by the closing down of air passages in an individual’s throat, resulting in a deficient supply of oxygen to the brain for the duration of the stages of sleep. An individual who is suffering from sleep apnea is never truly able to cross the threshold into "deep sleep". This is the aspect of sleep that is typically the most restorative because it encompasses the essential stress relievers of dreaming, problem solving and deep relaxation. Consequently, concentration, psychomotor skills, and memory can all be impaired as a result of a disrupted sleep pattern. Other associations include depression, morning headaches, impotency, decreased libido, and gastroesophageal reflux.
Persistent snoring is one more problematic side effect of sleep apnea, causing the sufferer to wake up many times throughout the night. This usually results in the individual feeling “poorly rested” which can lead to embarrassing and often dangerous situations such as falling asleep at work, when sitting, or even while driving a car. These narcoleptic behaviors make it crucial that an individual suffering from this disorder seek treatment as soon as possible. However, it is important to note that studies now conclude that the snoring itself does not produce sleep apnea.
There are in essence, two distinct types of sleep apnea. The first, central sleep apnea, is a neurological condition causing cessation of all respiratory effort during sleep, usually with decreases in blood oxygen saturation. The individual is aroused from sleep by an automatic breathing reflex, so he may end up getting very little sleep at all. The second, which is called obstructive sleep apnea, is caused by the collapse or obstruction of the airway with the inhibition of muscle tone that occurs during REM sleep. The most popular method of treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, since its introduction in 1981, is nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). CPAP equipment acts as a pneumatic splint, creating positive pressure inside the airway throughout the respiratory cycle. One explanation for the success of the CPAP treatment method is that the pressure acts along the entire upper airway so that all potentially obstructed areas are stabilized.
The successful treatment of sleep apnea is dependent upon the level of reduction of respiratory disturbance to normal levels, as well as by the elimination of symptoms like fatigue and depression, and the patient's personal sensation of well-being. The patient with sleep apnea faces incredible physical, social and emotional challenges. Family, friends and business associates often do not understand the disorder, and are not properly equipped to deal with the effects. For this reason, those close to the sleep apnea sufferer often seek professional assistance as well.
Fortunately, a massive influx of technological innovations has swiftly broadened the range of available methods for testing patients with sleep disordered breathing. As people have become more and more aware of the seriousness of sleep apnea, the need for more cost-efficient testing methods has inevitably arisen. This need has instigated the current trend of conducting sleep evaluations in the home, which can encompass everything from a few basic tests to the formation of a virtual in-home laboratory.
Unfortunately, not all of the long-term effects of untreated sleep apnea are known, but experts primarily agree that the effects are dangerous. If nothing else, the continual lack of quality sleep can affect an individual’s life in a variety of ways that include depression, irritability, loss of memory, lack of energy, a high risk of auto and workplace accidents, and physical problems such as high blood pressure, cardiac arrest, and in some cases, death. Consequently, both sufferers and physicians need to be adequately informed about the risks of the disorder, the benefits of various treatments, and the consequences if the disorder goes undiagnosed or ignored.