Issue 7 Stories
On-Call Advice

What is sleep apnea? Can it be dangerous if left untreated?

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in which a person repeatedly stops breathing for short periods while asleep. A form of the condition known as obstructive sleep apnea occurs due to structural problems with the muscles of the throat that cause the muscles to relax and temporarily close off the upper airways. Central sleep apnea, on the other hand, occurs due to disruption in nerve signals from the brain that control the muscles regulating breathing.

Symptoms of sleep apnea, often observed by others, include loud snoring, gasping for breath during sleep, episodes of shallow breathing or no breathing, frequently awakening during the night (insomnia), waking up tired, persistent tiredness or sleepiness during the day, dry mouth, and headaches (especially in the morning). Symptoms can include mood irritability, short-term memory problems and attention problems. Daytime tiredness due to sleep apnea can cause a person to fall asleep while watching TV or— potentially more dangerous—while working or even driving.

Risk factors that may contribute to sleep apnea include obesity, alcohol use, smoking and family history. Nasal congestion, the use of sedatives, being older and being male can also increase one’s risk.

Sleep apnea can be dangerous if not diagnosed and treated appropriately. Untreated sleep apnea can contribute to heart problems such as heart attack or irregular heart rhythms, stroke, high blood pressure, insulin resistance (possibly leading to Type 2 diabetes), and liver problems.

The primary method for diagnosing sleep apnea is with a sleep study, during which the patient’s sleep and breathing patterns are monitored. Milder cases of sleep apnea may be treated through lifestyle changes such as weight loss, changing medications, or giving up smoking or alcohol. More serious cases are typically treated using various devices that help keep the patient’s airway open during sleep.

One commonly prescribed breathing device used to treat sleep apnea is the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device, which provides sufficient air pressure through tubing and a mask to keep the patient’s airway open during sleep. Treatment of sleep apnea can help improve blood pressure, heart disease and heart failure, and also may help the patient lose weight.

People who think they may have sleep apnea should talk to their physician.

Sentara Sleep Medicine

Diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea, as well as other sleep disorders, are provided by both Sentara Blue Ridge Hospitals:

•  Sentara Martha Jefferson Sleep Medicine Center, Charlottesville: 434-654-5280

•  Sentara Sleep Center, Harrisonburg: 540-564-5500

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