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What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep.

Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes. They often occur 5 to 30 times or more an hour. Typically, normal breathing then starts again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound.

Sleep apnea usually is a chronic (ongoing) condition that disrupts your sleep 3 or more nights each week. You often move out of deep sleep and into light sleep when your breathing pauses or becomes shallow.

This results in poor sleep quality that makes you tired during the day. Sleep apnea is one of the leading causes of excessive daytime sleepiness. Overview

Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed. Doctors usually can't detect the condition during routine office visits. Also, there are no blood tests for the condition.

Most people who have sleep apnea don't know they have it because it only occurs during sleep. A family member and/or bed partner may first notice the signs of sleep apnea.

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. This most often means that the airway has collapsed or is blocked during sleep. The blockage may cause shallow breathing or breathing pauses.

When you try to breathe, any air that squeezes past the blockage can cause loud snoring. Obstructive sleep apnea happens more often in people who are overweight, but it can affect anyone.

The animation below shows how obstructive sleep apnea occurs. Click the "start" button to play the animation. Written and spoken explanations are provided with each frame. Use the buttons in the lower right corner to pause, restart, or replay the animation, or use the scroll bar below the buttons to move through the frames.

The animation shows how air flow to the lungs can be blocked, causing sleep apnea.
               Information and animation courtesy of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

The animation shows how air flow to the lungs can be blocked, causing sleep apnea.
Central sleep apnea is a less common type of sleep apnea. It happens when the area of your brain that controls your breathing doesn't send the correct signals to your breathing muscles. You make no effort to breathe for brief periods.

Central sleep apnea often occurs with obstructive sleep apnea, but it can occur alone. Snoring doesn't typically happen with central sleep apnea.

This article mainly focuses on obstructive sleep apnea.

Outlook

Untreated sleep apnea can:

Lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, surgery, and/or breathing devices can successfully treat sleep apnea in many people.