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5 Sleep Apnea Questions: FAQs From a Sleep Doctor


by Lawrence E. Kline, D.O.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with sleep apnea, this article is for you. It's your crash-course introduction to this common disorder. Let the class begin!

1. What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a disorder in which your breathing during the night is interrupted. The two types are central and obstructive.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common. With it, the tongue, soft palate and throat muscles relax during sleep, blocking the airway partially or completely. This usually causes snoring.

    When your airway is totally blocked, you stop breathing until you wake up just enough to start again. You may not even be aware of these arousals. Pauses can be 10 or more seconds and occur hundreds of times a night! The affected person often awakens in the morning not feeling rested and wondering why.

  • newsletter-graphicCentral sleep apnea is less common and occurs when the brain signal to breathe doesn’t get delivered to the breathing muscles. This can be genetic or caused by things like sedatives, narcotics or a brain injury. Other reasons include severe congestive heart failure and severe muscle disease in the chest wall or diaphragm.

2. What are sleep apnea's symptoms?
Though snoring is the most common symptom, there are many others. They can even contribute to a misdiagnosis. Frequent awakenings may be associated with—and blamed on:

  • nighttime urination
  • night sweats
  • palpitations
  • acid reflux
  • body or leg jerks
  • headache
  • dry mouth.

Other sleep-apnea symptoms include:

  • difficulty waking up
  • feeling excessively sleepy in the daytime
  • problems with concentration, memory and depression
Untreated sleep apnea is a risk factor for high blood pressure, stroke and cardiovascular disease.

3. What’s the most common cause of sleep apnea?

Obesity is the most common cause. When you're obese, your airway is crowded and therefore smaller. It has a greater potential for collapse. Obstructive sleep apnea is also more likely, even if you're not obese, if the jaw is small and the tongue or tonsils are large.

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4. You diagnose sleep apnea with a sleep study, right? What’s that like?

Yes, if your doctor suspects you have sleep apnea, you’ll likely need a sleep study. This usually takes place in an accredited sleep center with a comfortable bedroom facility.

For the painless test, you’ll have lots of sensors taped to you. Some measure brain waves: They tell when you fall asleep and reveal your sleep stages—like the restorative REM, which is more vulnerable to disruption. The study will also measure your oxygen levels, airflow at the nose or mouth, and effort from the chest and abdominal walls.

Click here to watch a video of Dr. Hubbard's night in a sleep lab.

5. What is a CPAP machine? How does it work?

Since a collapsed airspace causes sleep apnea, the CPAP machine generates an air cushion that keeps the throat open. To do this, it blows air through tubing and into a mask that usually attaches to the patient’s nose. Normally, a small leak from the mask allows exhaled air out.

Board-certified sleep specialist
LAWREWNCE E. KLINE, D.O., F.A.A.S.M., F.A.C.P., F.C.C.P., is medical director of Scripps Clinic Sleep Center in San Diego. He’s also board-certified in internal medicine and pulmonology (lungs).


Last updated and/or approved: March 2011.
Original article appeared in March/April 2009 former print magazine. Bio current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.
Comments (5)add comment
Central sleep apnea
written by Evelyn Cale , May 07, 2014

I snore so my wife say, i have the symptoms, time so see a doctor.
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Sleep Apnea Undiagnosed
written by Paul , July 29, 2010

From my research I have also read that sleep apnea is one of the most common conditions that goes undiagnosed for most people.

Also, the chances of getting into an accident increase significantly with sleep apnea, even though most people are unaware that they even have it.

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Re: ...
written by James Hubbard, M.D. , April 12, 2010

Mr. Hooper,

I certainly appreciate your service and wish you the best. I have no knowledge that sleep apnea is related to PTSD.

James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

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written by Clarence Hooper , April 08, 2010

I pulled two tours in Viet Nam. I went through the TET Offensive, very bad time. Anyway the VA. said I have sleep apnea and gave me the cpap machine. I am trying to get dissability for it. I can`t get my doctor to say that sleep apnea and PTSD are assoaited. Can you help?? I am 62 and have heart problems. I was just awarded SSI dissability.
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No mandibular devices for Moderate OSA
written by Ben. G , April 22, 2009

Mandibular devices can only be used for mild osa, they can potentially worsen OSA in moderate cases.
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