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Understanding Obstructive Sleep Apnea

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Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of apnea. Here's information to help you understand how obstructive sleep apnea can affect your life and what can be done about it.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Apnea literally means "cessation of breath." If you have sleep apnea, your breath can become very shallow or you may even stop breathing while you are asleep. This state of not breathing can occur up to hundreds of times a night in some people.

What Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) -- also called obstructive sleep apnea syndrome -- occurs when there are repeated episodes of complete or partial blockage of the upper airway during sleep. During an obstructive sleep apnea episode, the diaphragm and chest muscles work harder to open the obstructed airway and pull air into the lungs. Breathing usually resumes with a loud gasp, snort, or body jerk. These episodes can interfere with sound sleep. They can also reduce the flow of oxygen to vital organs and cause irregular heart rhythms.

What Are the Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Who Gets Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, more than 12 million people in the U.S. have sleep apnea. Of the total, more than half are overweight. Those figures also estimate that one in 25 middle-aged men and one in 50 middle-aged women have sleep apnea. If you are related to someone with sleep apnea, you are more likely to develop sleep apnea yourself.

Sleep apnea is more common in men than in women. It is also more likely to develop in African-Americans, Hispanics, and Pacific Islanders than in Caucasians. The likelihood of developing the condition increases with age. For women, the condition is more likely after menopause.

Sleep apnea is more common among people with thick or large necks. The condition is also more common among people who have smaller airways in their noses, throats, or mouths. The small airway could be related to the actual size and shape of the airway, or to obstructions or other medical conditions that are causing obstructions.

Babies and small children may have sleep apnea that is caused by swollen tonsils. Adults may also have enlarged tonsils causing obstruction. More commonly, their obstruction is caused by too much tissue at the back of the throat -- the uvula and soft palate -- that hangs down and blocks the windpipe. A larger than average tongue can also block the airway in many people as well as a deviated septum in the nose.



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