Recognizing and Treating Sleep Apnea

Expert tips on how to tell common snoring from sleep apnea -- and advice on seeking treatment.
A Not-So-Silent Killer

If you think sleeping next to an industrial-grade snorer is bad, consider the world of sleep apnea.

You're sleeping quietly beside your partner when all of a sudden, his chest stops its comforting rise and fall. The silence is broken with an explosive gasp or snort, he becomes restless, and then normal breathing -- or more likely, snoring -- resumes.

"My wife couldn't sleep in the same room with me," says Jim DeCastro, the sheriff of Bristol County, Rhode Island, who suffers from sleep apnea. "My tenants on the second floor complained. No one could take it anymore."

Sleep apnea is more than just loud snoring. A person literally stops breathing while asleep. The tongue or other soft tissues fall back and completely collapse the airway. At other times, the airway is only partially obstructed and breathing is very shallow. Either way, oxygen levels drop. Throat muscles contract as the person struggles to breathe. He gasps or lets out a snort as air rushes down the now-open throat. Oxygen levels return to normal and the person falls back asleep.

This cycle can be repeated dozens of times each hour. Snorting and snoring become such a routine, most people have no memory of their spasmic breathing cycle. Others may remember a restless night or a sudden awakening.

Most people with obstructive sleep apnea stop breathing for 10 to 40 seconds. Some stop breathing repeatedly, as many as 500 times a night. Martin Scharf, Ph.D., director of the Tri-State Sleep Disorders Center in Cincinnati, has treated a man who stopped breathing 144 times every hour throughout the night.

Continued on page 2:  Who Is at Risk?