Sleep apnea is a disorder in which your breathing is interrupted for periods of 10 seconds or more while you are asleep. These interruptions may occur hundreds of times a night, causing you to gasp for air and disrupting your sleep.
There are two main types of sleep apnea:
Common symptoms of sleep apnea include:
If sleep apnea isn't treated, it can lead to serious health problems such as:
If you think you might have sleep apnea, your doctor may be able to make a diagnosis based on the description of your symptoms. In addition, an overnight evaluation with a sleep study may be performed to assess the severity and cause of your sleep problems.
During an overnight sleep study at your home or in a sleep laboratory, your breathing and other body functions are monitored while you sleep.
In a sleep laboratory such as the UCSF Sleep Testing Laboratory, tests, called polysomnograms, monitor your heart, lung, brain activity and eye movement as well as your breathing patterns, blood oxygen levels and body movements as you sleep.
At home, a portable monitor can measure the amount of oxygen in your blood, volume of air flowing through your nose when you breathe, your heart rate and chest movements that could indicate effort exerted when breathing.
Sleep apnea rarely goes away without treatment. Treatments include lifestyle changes and behavior modification, such as losing weight, sleeping on your side or stomach and not on your back, and avoiding alcohol two to three hours before going to bed.
If those efforts fail, the most effective treatment is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). A mask covers your nose and mouth and is attached to a device that pumps a continuous flow of air while you sleep. Air flowing into your nostrils helps keep airways open.
Many patients find the mask uncomfortable and give up on treatment, but with practice, you can learn how to adjust the mask and adapt to the air pressure. You may need to try more than one type of mask before you find the one that works best for you.
New devices also are being developed to improve comfort:
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.