Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which a person’s breathing is repeatedly interrupted. People with sleep apnea stop breathing, sometimes hundreds of times a night, and usually start again after a loud gasp or body jerk. Interrupted sleep can prevent sound sleep, reduce oxygen to vital organs and cause heart rhythm problems.
People who are likely to have sleep apnea may be overweight; have a large neck, blockages in the nose or mouth, or large tonsils; or have a small jaw with an overbite.
The most common type of sleep apnea is called obstructive sleep apnea, which occurs because the person may have a blockage of the passages in his or her nose or mouth, as a result of the throat muscles relaxing during sleep. The other type, called central sleep apnea, occurs when the brain doesn’t send the proper signals to the muscles that control breathing during sleep. This can happen for various reasons, including after a stroke, in people who have heart or lung problems or someone with a brain tumor.
If it is not treated, sleep apnea can cause the heart muscle to enlarge, or cause high blood pressure, stroke, abnormal heartbeat, diabetes, obesity and heart attack. Untreated sleep apnea may be responsible for poor job performance, work-related accidents and car accidents.