Medical Definition of Apnea, obstructive sleep

Reviewed on 3/29/2021

Apnea, obstructive sleep: Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. It owes its name to a Greek word, apnea, meaning "want of breath."

There are two types of sleep apnea: central and obstructive.

  • Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to send the appropriate signals to the breathing muscles to initiate respirations.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when air cannot flow into or out of the person's nose or mouth although efforts to breathe continue.

Obstructive sleep apnea is much more common than central sleep apnea. In obstructive sleep apnea, the throat collapses during sleep causing the individual to snort and gasp for breath. Hundreds of these episodes can occur every night causing daytime sleepiness and, it is thought, increasing the risk of hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart problems.

A tracheostomy -- in which an incision is made in the throat so a tube can bypass the obstruction and deliver air to the lungs -- can be done for extreme cases of sleep apnea but leaves a wide-open hole in the throat. The same amount of air can now be delivered through a tiny incision in the throat -- a mini-tracheostomy -- using a tiny tube that senses patients' breathing patterns and adjusts the amount of air it sends to the throat.

There are other, less invasive treatments for obstructive sleep apnea, most commonly CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure. It is administered with a mask of the nose or over the nose and mouth, that applies pressure to prevent the upper airway from closing.



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