Southeast Houston Sleep Medicine

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Millions of Americans suffer from a disorder called obstructive sleep
apnea. This occurs when the muscles of the throat, tongue and
neck relax during sleep. In some people, this blockage becomes so
severe that it obstructs the upper airway. Partially blocked airways
result in snoring, but if the airway becomes completely obstructed, the person temporarily stops breathing. Apnea literally means “without breath.”

Once a person stops breathing, the brain arouses the person and he or she wakes up briefly and then falls back asleep. Provided the person falls asleep again in less than fifteen seconds, he or she will have no recollection of awakening. This cycle of breathing cessation and arousal repeats itself over and over. People with the most severe cases can stop breathing up to 100 times an hour.

This recurrent pattern can be so disruptive, people with sleep apnea never feel fully rested. They may fall asleep frequently during the day, and in extreme cases may doze off during conversations or even while driving. Some patients experience such extreme fatigue and sleepiness, they can’t stay awake at work, which can result in serious consequences.

Doctors screen patients for sleep apnea through a physical examination and interview. The condition is more common in obese patients, so physicians may be more likely to look for symptoms in an overweight individual. Some telltale include frequent napping during the day, excessive daytime sleepiness, snoring at night, and waking up with severe headaches.

If you describe symptoms that seem to indicate sleep apnea, your doctor may order an overnight sleep study. During this procedure, a technician will observe a sleeping patient in a laboratory that is equipped with a comfortable bed and surroundings similar to a hotel room. Over the course of the night, instruments monitor oxygen levels, chest wall movements, airflow from the nose, leg movements, brain wave patterns and eye movements. A pattern of repeated episodes of interrupted breathing will alert technicians and physicians to the diagnosis of sleep apnea.

Upon confirmation of the diagnosis, your doctor will probably recommend sleeping with a special mask that will provide continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. The CPAP machine blows a small amount of air through the nose into the back of the throat. This pressure keeps the airway open. Patients using CPAP usually report dramatic improvements in their levels of daytime sleepiness and overall sense of well-being. The doctor may also recommend losing weight, and many times this will improve the condition. In rare cases, patients may require more than CPAP. Some may benefit from another breathing machine called a BiPAP (bi-level continuous positive airway pressure). It is similar to a CPAP, but it provides more pressure during inhalation and less during exhalation. Other options are dental devices that reposition the tongue to avoid blocking the airway. In extremely, refractory cases some physicians will even recommend surgery to remove some of the excessive tissue in the back of the throat.