Sleep apnea is a common condition in the United States. It can occur when the upper airway becomes blocked repeatedly during sleep, reducing or completely stopping airflow. This is known as obstructive sleep apnea. The “apnea” in sleep apnea refers to a breathing pause that lasts at least ten seconds. More than 18 million American adults have sleep apnea, but it occurs in all age groups and both sexes. Childhood sleep apnea is gaining prevalence with some estimates showing 2-3% of the US population; however, those estimates could be as high as 10-20% in habitually snoring children.
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open, despite efforts to breathe. Another form of sleep apnea is central sleep apnea, in which the brain fails to properly control breathing during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea is far more common than central sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea can cause fragmented sleep and low blood oxygen levels. For people with sleep apnea, the combination of disturbed sleep and oxygen starvation may lead to hypertension, heart disease and mood and memory problems.