Q: What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a chronic disorder that interrupts your breathing while you sleep. It often goes undiagnosed because the symptoms – snoring, pauses in breathing and gasping for air – occur while people are sleeping. It can result in daytime sleepiness, headaches, memory problems and more. It can also lead to more serious health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, increased stroke risk and reduced lifespan if not addressed.

Q: What causes sleep apnea?

During sleep, the muscles in the throat and upper airway collapse. This can be caused by neuromuscular changes, physical obstructions or brain dysfunction. When this happens, the airway becomes blocked and airflow and oxygen levels drop. The brain triggers the muscles to tighten, restoring normal airflow. This can happen several hundred times during the night leading to a restless sleep pattern, wherein the brain is unable to enter the deeper levels of sleep that are essential for regeneration of the various brain processes.

Q: How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

Your doctor will recommend an overnight sleep study in a sleep laboratory or a home sleep study. During that test, brain waves, oxygen levels, body movement, heart rate and rhythm, and airflow are monitored and recorded. A sleep medicine physician reviews the test results and characterizes the type of sleep dysfunction.

Q: What treatments are currently available?

Medical options include a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine and/or a dental appliance. There are many surgical options for those who are appropriate candidates, the most exciting of which is a hypoglossal nerve stimulator, like a pacemaker, but for the tongue, which was FDA-approved in 2014. Depending upon the severity of your sleep apnea and other health problems you may have, your doctor can advise the best treatment for you.