Mario A. Martinez, M.D.

Most people are now familiar with the term sleep apnea but really don’t understand what it is and how serious the condition is. There are two types of sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea is caused by a problem with the respiratory center in the brain. Obstructive sleep apnea is far more common and is often associated with obesity.

Just like we are all born with different shaped noses, ears, and mouths, we also have different sized openings to the oropharynx. The oropharynx is the opening in the back of the throat that air and food pass through. The muscles that keep the oropharynx open relax while we sleep at night, and the opening partially collapses. The weight of the fat under our chins pushes back on it while we are laying down asleep and collapses it even more. Not enough oxygen enters the lungs of people with obstructive sleep apnea while they sleep. This means that every night they are oxygen deprived. Patients with sleep apnea usually snore very loudly. They also wake up short of breath and stop breathing in their sleep. They feel fatigued in the morning and sleepy during the day. Because the large muscles of the body are oxygen-deprived all night, every night, patients with sleep apnea have diffuse muscle ache. This muscle ache is often misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia. Oxygen deprivation causes irritation to clusters of nerves in the heart. When these nerves became irritated, they can fire spontaneously. This can cause an irregular heart rhythm.

The treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is a device called a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. This machine blows room air into the oropharynx, which keeps it popped open. The device gently pushes room air into the lungs. People that start to sleep with CPAP usually state that they have not felt so good in years.