Demystifying the Sleep Apnea Medical Definition: What Every Patient Should Know

It was recently revealed that President Joe Biden has started using a CPAP machine to treat his sleep apnea. The President is far from being alone in experiencing this sleep disorder. The American Medical Association estimates that more than 30 million Americans have sleep apnea.

At least 80% are unaware of their disorder as it often goes undiagnosed. This places them at a higher risk of developing serious health conditions linked to untreated sleep apnea, including heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Also, the daytime sleepiness also places you at a larger risk of having a traffic accident.

Therefore, it is important to demystify the sleep apnea medical definition to better understand the symptoms and risk factors involved.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a disorder that results in your breathing being interrupted as you sleep. These interruptions see your breathing reduced, called hypopneas, or cease completely, called apneas.

Such interruptions to breathing may last 10 seconds or more before the brain responds to the drop in oxygen levels and prompts the body to sub-consciously wake for air.

The most common form of this sleep disorder is obstructive sleep apnea. The breathing pauses are caused by a narrowing of the upper airways, reducing the flow of oxygen to the lungs. When we sleep, our muscles relax. For those with obstructive sleep apnea, the muscles in the throat relax and block the upper airways.

The arousals prompted by the brain for air can be so short that you may be unaware of them. However, for someone with severe obstructive sleep apnea, these arousals can happen more than 30 times every hour. The resulting sleep deprivation increases your risk of serious health issues.

Are Certain People More at Risk for Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

While anyone could develop sleep apnea, there are risk factors that place you at an increased risk of the sleep disorder. This includes:

  • Obesity
  • Large neck size
  • Men who are middle-aged or older
  • Post-menopausal women
  • People with a family history of sleep apnea
  • Smoking
  • Chronic nasal congestion
  • Down syndrome

What Are the Symptoms?

As the arousals from sleep can be brief, it may be a sleep partner that first notices their occurrence. However, there are further symptoms to be aware of. These include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Waking gasping for air
  • Excessive daytime fatigue
  • Poor concentration
  • Increased irritability
  • Morning headaches
  • Dry mouth in the morning
  • Depression

If you notice any of these symptoms you should consult your doctor. Obstructive sleep apnea can be treated and its debilitating effects reduced or eliminated. This in turn can reduce the risk of serious health problems linked to the disorder and the risk of accidents caused by fatigue. This is why diagnosis is key.

Getting the Correct Diagnosis

If your doctor suspects sleep apnea, they may prescribe an at-home test. This tends to involve a clip placed over the finger when sleeping that is attached to a monitor. The monitor records your breathing, chest wall movement, body position, oxygen levels, and heart rate while you sleep, the results of which can be used to diagnose sleep apnea.

Another method of diagnosis involves an overnight stay at a sleep lab where your sleep is monitored. You may take a polysomnogram as part of the sleep study that records a range of measures to help determine whether you have obstructive sleep apnea and its severity.

The apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) is used to measure the severity of sleep apnea. An AHI of between 5 to 15 indicates a mild degree of sleep apnea. It means you experience between 5 to 15 breathing interruptions or episodes every hour. For those with severe sleep apnea, their AHI is 30 or over.

Treating Obstructive Sleep Apnea


CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. Sleep apnea is a common condition, and like President Biden, many Americans will be using CPAP to treat the disorder. CPAP uses a device that delivers pressurized air through tubing to a mask worn while you sleep. The pressurized air helps keep the airways open to prevent breathing difficulties.

CPAP may be employed for any degree of sleep apnea but is seen as the standard treatment for those with a moderate or severe degree of the disorder. CPAP has been around since the early 1980s, and improvements in technology mean the devices are now compact and almost silent.

Heated humidifiers are a constituent part of many modern devices, adding moisture to the air for increased comfort. CPAP can be effective at quickly reducing the symptoms of sleep apnea.

2. Oral Appliances

CPAP isn’t for everyone. Some people can find the mask claustrophobic, while others may struggle with the air pressure required to keep the airways open.

While there are variations of CPAP machines, some people benefit from an oral device. Looking like a sports mouthguard, this keeps the airways free from obstruction by repositioning the lower jaw, tongue, or soft palate while you sleep.

3. Surgery

If non-invasive treatment options do not prevent your sleep apnea symptoms, then surgery might be considered. This could involve removing tissues from the tonsils, soft palate, or tongue if they are the cause of the obstruction to the airways.

4. Lifestyle Changes

As weight is one of the main contributory factors for sleep apnea, you may be advised to make some lifestyle changes. This can include more exercise and a healthier diet geared to weight loss.

Avoiding alcohol could be another consideration -- while sleeping on your side rather than your back could help offset the impact of gravity pulling tissues down into the throat

Without treatment, sleep apnea increases your risk of long-term health problems as well as falling asleep at the wheel of your car from the fatigue caused by sleep deprivation.

Demystifying the sleep apnea medical definition -- and being aware of the core symptoms of the disorder -- can help you receive the treatment to combat the symptoms and return you to crucial restorative sleep.