sleep apnea, episodes of interrupted breathing during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea is a common disorder in which relaxation of muscles in the throat repeatedly close off the airway during sleep; the person wakes just enough to take a gasping breath. This process is repeated many times during sleep and usually is not remembered the next day. Those suffering from severe obstructive sleep apnea typically complain of sleepiness, irritability, forgetfulness, and difficulty in concentrating. They may have difficulties in their occupational or social lives and be prone to motor vehicle accidents.
Most people with obstructive sleep apnea tend to be obese and snore loudly. The disorder has been medically linked to hypertension, which in turn puts people at greater risk of heart failure and stroke. Weight reduction in persons who are overweight is an important factor in effective treatment. Alcoholic drinks near bedtime and sleeping pills should be avoided. Sometimes obstructive sleep apnea can be treated by surgically correcting the narrowing of the airway. Another option is continuous positive airway pressure, which involves wearing a mask over the nose and mouth during sleep; this treatment keeps the airway open by forcing air into the nasal passages. A different type of sleep apnea, called central sleep apnea, is believed to be caused by an abnormality in the brain's regulation of breathing during sleep.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.