People often think of snoring as just an annoying habit that happens when you sleep. Although it certainly can be bothersome to anyone within earshot, snoring also can be a very real problem and a possible sign that you have sleep apnea. In fact, it is common for family members or bedmates to let someone know something isn't right.

The term "apnea" is a Greek word meaning "without breathing." As a person sleeps, he or she can have episodes -- sometimes hundreds during the night -- in which they will stop breathing until the body causes them to temporarily wake up and take a breath. Apnea is as common among adults and children as are diabetes and other chronic conditions. Unfortunately, sleep apnea goes undiagnosed and untreated by many people, and the casual view that it is just snoring often prevents individuals from seeking medical attention.

The reality, however, is that sleep apnea isn't just snoring. It is linked to many day-to-day health problems and over time can lead to more serious and potentially life-threatening conditions. Not getting restful sleep can cause irritability, headaches, memory loss and difficulty concentrating.

"The reason sleep apnea is so dangerous is that it contributes to so many other problems," says Dr. Stephen Layne, medical director of the East Jefferson General Hospital Sleep Disorder Program. "People suffering from it are much more likely to have accidents in the home and while driving because their reaction time is diminished."

Prolonged sleep apnea can lead to hypertension, heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular disorders. Layne says that during apneic episodes while sleeping, oxygen saturation in the blood drops, while blood pressure rises, causing the heart to work harder. These two strains on the body's systems put someone with apnea at a much greater risk for heart problems.

The two main types of sleep apnea are obstructive and central, with obstructive the more common by far. Obstructive apnea means that a person is making an effort to breathe, but the airflow is being blocked. The muscles that support the tonsils, uvula and tongue will relax, causing the air passage to narrow and obstructing the necessary flow of oxygen to the system. Some individuals may simply have been born with a narrow airway. In central apnea, the brain does not send a signal to the body telling it to breathe.

Although men are more likely than women to have sleep apnea, everyone is at risk, especially if they are overweight. Weight gain is the leading cause for developing apnea, and it can get worse as a person gets older and puts on weight. Even if you only gain two or three pounds a year, that adds up over time and puts additional pressure on the airway.

"Although being overweight is a contributing factor for sleep apnea, it is not the only factor," says Layne. "Genetics plays a key role. If your parents have it or if you have siblings who have it, then it probably runs in your family and you may want to start monitoring yourself. In addition, some can just be born with a narrowed pharynx."

The good news is that it can be treated successfully. Determining whether or not you have sleep apnea is the first step. For a proper diagnosis, your physician may ask that you do an overnight study to monitor how you sleep. During this type of study, breathing patterns, oxygen levels and brain activity will be recorded throughout the night while you sleep.

If diagnosed, primarily with obstructive apnea, the most effective treatment is a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine; it is the preferred method over surgical options. When sleeping, a mask is worn and attached to the CPAP machine, which delivers a continuous flow of air down the passage to maintain an open airway. This ensures that the body has the proper amount of air to decrease, or even eliminate, apneic episodes. Layne also recommends reducing your weight, sleeping on your side instead of your back and avoiding alcohol and medications such as tranquilizers and muscle relaxers. Ask your physician for more information and other treatment options if you suspect you have sleep apnea.

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