A medical condition in which the patient stops breathing while s/he is asleep. Believed to be suffered in one way or another by up to 12 million Americans.
There are three types of sleep apnea, obstructive, central, and mixed.
In Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), soft tissue (such as the tongue, uvula, or pharynx) fall back against the windpipe while the patient is sleeping. This causes the airway to be cut off, resulting in the patient having to snore (which is really just a gasp for breath). It interrupts the sleep cycle and can cause tremendous fatigue in its victim, although it is treatable through pressure mask devices known as CPAP and BiPAP machines. There are also surgical options, such as uvulopalatopharyngoplasty and septoplasty, should the patient have trouble tolerating the pressure mask.
Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) is much more dangerous and much more difficult to treat. Caused by misfirings in the brain, the nervous system simply "forgets" to tell the body to breathe while it is asleep. Except in very mild cases, surgical therapies and CPAP/BiPAP machines only make matters worse. Severe CSA is usually treated by placing the patient on a respirator.
Mixed Sleep Apnea is just what it sounds like: the patient has symptoms of both central and obstructive sleep apnea. These patients are exceedingly difficult to treat, because standard OSA treatments like CPAP and BiPAP pressure masks have been known to cause increased apneaic events in patients with CSA. Depending upon the severity of their illness, patients with Mixed Sleep Apnea could expect to be placed on medications, on low-pressure oxygen, or even on a respirator. This type of sleep apnea is the rarest and most difficult to treat.
Doctors diagnose patients with sleep disorders (including OSA and CSA) though the use of a "sleep study," or polysomnogram. This test measures breathing, blood oxygen level, blood pressure, and a host of other variables while a patient is asleep. Polysomnograms are invaluable in returning a diagnosis of OSA, CSA, Mixed Sleep Apnea, and other sleep disorders such as Restless Legs Syndrome, Narcolepsy, and Periodic Limb Movement Disorder.
Although some victims of sleep apnea, often called "Silent Apneaics," don't snore at all, most do--obnoxiously loud. So if you or someone you know snores very loud, especially when sleeping on your back, you should probably consider seeing a sleep specialist for an evaluation. Besides annoying your bed partner with your loud chainsaw-esque breathing patterns, you also place yourself at risk for a litany of health problems, even if you're not already experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea.
Untreated sleep apnea can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness (usually the first symptom, but not necessarily), elevated blood pressure, and even death (especially in the case of central sleep apnea). If you think you might be at risk for sleep apnea, learn more at the American Sleep Apnea Association's website at: http://www.sleepapnea.org
If you suffer from one form of sleep apnea or another, you should know that there is an excellent support group on the Internet of which you might like to avail yourself. http://www.sleepnet.com is a popular, anonymous site that discusses everything from OSA and CSA to Narcolepsy and Restless Legs Syndrome. They have forums dedicated to each type of disorder, as well as information regarding the latest findings and medical studies. I highly recommend it to anyone has just been diagnosed with a sleep disorder and is wondering where to go from here.