Sleep Apnea Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

Sleep apnea is a condition when your breathing stops and starts throughout the whole night. It can leave you feeling tired and sluggish all day.

Sleep apnea is also associated with severe health issues.

Here's what you need to know about this common health problem, and how UPMC can help.

Contact the UPMC Sleep Medicine Center

Make an appointment at 412-692-2880 or fill out a UPMC Sleep Medicine Center appointment request.

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What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a type of breathing disorder.

People with this condition stop breathing for short periods (10 seconds or more) while they sleep. They may not even know that their breathing at night isn't normal.

Sleep apnea is common. About 26% of all Americans have some form of sleep apnea. The true number may be more than that because many cases may go undetected.

More men than women have sleep apnea. It's also more common in people who are overweight.

Obstructive sleep apnea can increase your risk of getting health problems, such as:

  • High blood pressure.
  • Diabetes.
  • Stroke.
  • Heart attack.
  • Headaches.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
  • Depression.
  • Memory loss.

What Are the Types of Sleep Apnea?

There are two types of sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

OSA is the most common type.

It happens when your:

  • Throat muscles relax too far.
  • Airway narrows.
  • Blood oxygen levels decrease.

Once your brain senses the problem, you startle awake — snorting, choking, or gasping for air.

Central sleep apnea (CSA)

CSA happens when the brain doesn't send proper signals to the muscles that help with breathing.

It's often found in people with other health problems, like heart failure or stroke.

What Are the Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea?

Risk factors for sleep apnea depend on which type you have.

OSA risk factors

  • Being overweight.
  • Having a large neck.
  • Being a man.
  • Being older.
  • Having a family history of sleep apnea.
  • Drinking alcohol.
  • Using sedation .drugs
  • Smoking.
  • Nasal congestion.

CSA risk factors

  • Heart issues.
  • Stroke.
  • Being a man.
  • Being older.
  • Sleeping at high altitudes.
  • Taking opioid drugs.

Sleep Apnea Symptoms and Diagnosis

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

If your bed partner notices that you stop breathing for periods during sleep, you should see a doctor.

You should also get checked for sleep apnea if you:

  • Snore.
  • Gasp for air during sleep
  • Are tired or have a headache when you wake up.
  • Are drowsy throughout the day.
  • Wake up with a dry mouth.
  • Have insomnia (a hard time staying asleep).
  • Have less interest in sex.
  • Are irritable.
  • Have mood changes.

How do UPMC experts diagnose sleep apnea?

UPMC sleep medicine experts will first ask about your symptoms. They'll look at your medical history and do a physical exam.

Depending on the first exam, your doctor may want you to have a sleep study. During the sleep study, you'll stay overnight at the hospital.

sleep technician will place sensors on your chest, belly, face, scalp, and legs. These sensors track brain waves and your breathing to learn your stages of sleep and breathing at night.

While you sleep, they will detect:

  • If you're asleep or awake.
  • Stages of sleep.
  • Eye movements.
  • Airflow from the nose and mouth.
  • Heart rhythm.
  • Blood oxygen levels.
  • Leg movement.

During your overnight stay, a camera will also record your movements while you're sleeping.

What Are the Treatment Options for Sleep Apnea?

UPMC Sleep Medicine experts are leaders in the field and offer a range of up-to-date treatments for sleep apnea.

Your treatment may depend on how severe your condition is.

Lifestyle changes to treat mild sleep apnea

Your doctor may suggest you make lifestyle changes.

Mild sleep apnea may get better if you:

  • Manage your weight.
  • Cut back on alcohol, especially before you go to bed.
  • Change sleep positions (lying on your side instead of your back).

Medical sleep apnea treatments

If your sleep apnea is more serious, you may need more than making lifestyle changes.

Some treatment options are:

  • Positive pressure therapy. Your doctor may suggest you use a CPAP machine. It's a mask that brings a constant flow of air into the nose or mouth while you sleep.
  • Oral appliance therapy. You may need to see your dentist to make a custom mouthpiece. You wear it during sleep to keep your airway open.
  • Medicine. Your doctor may suggest drugs that can help limit being sleepy during the day.
  • Inspire®. Your doctor may implant a small device that stimulates the upper airway while you sleep.

You'll have regular follow-up visits where our team will check your progress and see if treatments are working for you.

Surgery to treat sleep apnea

There are many types of sleep apnea surgeries. Your UPMC sleep medicine doctor will talk to you about which one might be best.

With proper treatment for sleep apnea, you can start getting a good night's sleep and feeling more like yourself again.

Learn more about pulmonary, allergy, and critical care medicine at UPMC.

Make a Sleep Apnea Appointment at UPMC

Call 412-692-2880 or fill out a UPMC Sleep Medicine Center appointment request form.