Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing or instances of shallow or infrequent breathing during sleep. Each pause in breathing is called an apnea and can last for several seconds to several minutes. An individual with sleep apnea is rarely aware of having difficulty breathing, even upon awakening. It is usually recognized by others witnessing the individual during episodes or is suspected due to daytime sleepiness and fatigue associated with sleep disturbance.
The obstruction to the airway most commonly occurs in the throat at either the level of the soft palate or the base of the tongue. Much less frequently, the obstruction that causes sleep apnea occurs in the nose. To make the distinction between benign snoring and sleep apnea, a sleep study, known as polysomnography, is necessary. Sleep studies can be done in a sleep lab or in some cases done at home.
In most patients with moderate to severe sleep apnea, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is the first line treatment. Surgical procedures may be considered as a secondary treatment option available to patients with sleep apnea.