Sleep apnea is a serious condition in which the breathing stops without the knowledge of the person, for brief periods of time during sleep. Apnea means “to stop breathing”. So, a person with untreated sleep apnea stops breathing several times during their sleep, involuntarily wake up to resume breathing and sometimes wake up gasping for breath. Continuous breathing ensures continuous supply of oxygen to the body and the brain and when breathing stops, there is less supply of oxygen.
Untreated, sleep apnea can lead to serious health conditions like hypertension, stroke, enlargement of muscles of the heart, heart failure, diabetes and heart attacks. Sleep apnea causes excessive sleepiness during day time. This can lead to work-related and motor-related accidents. Sleep apnea also leads to cognitive problems like impaired concentration, attention, memory and decision making skills.
Types of sleep apnea:
What happens when the person stops breathing in sleep?
When a person stops breathing, the heart rate also drops. This means that heart is sending less blood to the vital organs, and vital organs in turn are getting less oxygen. Breathing resumes when the person involuntarily wakes up due to natural survival reflexes. This jerk can cause the heart to beat rapidly, thus increasing the blood pressure.
Further, increase in blood pressure leads to thickening of heart walls and there is a change in the structure of the heart. The muscles of the heart become stiff due to growth of fibrous cells between the muscles. Irregular heart beat, stoke and other such problems are the result of these episodes of not breathing during sleep.
Causes of sleep apnea:
Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by the collapse of the soft muscles and tissues at the back of the throat, thereby blocking the airway.
Central sleep apnea usually has an underlying disease of the nervous system. Conditions like amyotropic lateral sclerosis and stroke and certain diseases of heart, lung and kidney can cause central sleep apnea.