Sleep Apnea

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What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. These episodes usually last 10 seconds or more and occur repeatedly throughout the night. People with sleep apnea will partially awaken as they struggle to breathe, but they will not be aware of the disturbances in their sleep when they wake up in the morning.

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is caused by relaxation of soft tissue in the back of the throat that blocks the passage of air.

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is caused by irregularities in the brain's signals to breathe.

Most people with sleep apnea will have a combination of both types. The hallmark symptom of the disorder is excessive daytime sleepiness. Additional symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Restless sleep
  • Loud snoring with periods of silence followed by gasps
  • Falling asleep during the day
  • Morning headaches
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Mood or behavior changes
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Not everyone who has these symptoms will have sleep apnea, but a visit to the doctor is recommended for people experiencing even a few. Sleep apnea is more likely to occur in males than females, and in people who are overweight or obese.

There are a variety of treatments for sleep apnea, depending on an individual's medical history and the severity of the disorder. Most treatment regimens begin with lifestyle changes, such as:

  • Avoiding alcohol and medications that relax the central nervous system (e.g., sedatives and muscle relaxants)
  • Losing weight
  • Quitting smoking

Some people find relief when using special pillows or devices that keep them from sleeping on their backs, or oral appliances to keep the airway open during sleep. If these conservative methods are inadequate, doctors often recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), in which a face mask is attached to a tube and a machine that blows pressurized air into the mask and through the airway to keep it open. Machines that offer variable positive airway pressure (VPAP) and automatic positive airway pressure (APAP) are also available.

There are surgical procedures that can be used to remove tissue and widen the airway. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a surgically implantable device, which is placed in the upper chest to monitor a person's respiratory signals during sleep and stimulate a nerve to stimulate and restore even breathing. Some individuals may need a combination of therapies to successfully treat their sleep apnea.

Left untreated, sleep apnea can be life threatening. Excessive daytime sleepiness can cause people to fall asleep at inappropriate times, such as while driving. Sleep apnea also appears to put individuals at risk for stroke and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), also known as “mini-strokes," and is associated with:

  • Coronary heart disease
  • Heart failure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart attack
  • High blood pressure

Although there is no cure for sleep apnea, recent studies show that successful treatment can reduce the risk of heart and blood pressure problems.

Learn About Clinical Trials
Clinical trials are studies that allow us to learn more about disorders and improve care. They can help connect patients with new and upcoming treatment options.

How can I or my loved one help improve care for people with sleep apnea?

Consider participating in a clinical trial so clinicians and scientists can learn more about sleep apnea and related disorders. Clinical research uses human volunteers to help researchers learn more about a disorder and perhaps find better ways to safely detect, treat, or prevent disease.

All types of volunteers are needed—those who are healthy or may have an illness or disease—of all different ages, sexes, races, and ethnicities to ensure that study results apply to as many people as possible, and that treatments will be safe and effective for everyone who will use them.

For information about participating in clinical research visit NIH Clinical Research Trials and You. Learn about clinical trials currently looking for people with sleep apnea at

Where can I find more information about sleep apnea?

Information may be available from the following organizations and resources:

American Sleep Apnea Association
Phone: 888-293-3650


National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
Phone: 301-592-8573 or 240-629-3255 

National Sleep Foundation
Phone: 703-243-1697

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