Just some information for those who have or suspect they have sleep apnea. I am both an EMT and a Senior Sleep Disorder Technician working at several different labs in and around Salt Lake City (one company, many labs), and have spent a long time learning everything I can about sleep apnea first hand.
Please let me know if you found this helpful and if you have further questions please ask, I have been helping people better understand this condition face to face for years in our labs, and like trying to teach people how to tell if they might have apnea and why treating it will extend their lives.
This is a first draft, and ironically I wrote it in my free time at the lab tonight, so if any major errors or omissions are brought to my attention I will revise them ASAP.
Weight and age are the number one causes of sleep apnea.
As you get older, particularly above 40, the tissues in your throat become looser and therefore more likely to obstruct your airway when you are laying down or asleep. This obstruction is what causes snoring. If severe enough, it periodically stops snoring as the obstruction wins out. This happens most often on an out breath, and can stop someones breathing for around thirty seconds if it is severe enough. See how long you can hold your breath on an out breath, and imagine doing it 60 times per hour every night of your life (I have seen up to 120 times per hour, which is once every thirty seconds, for anywhere to 15-20 seconds each time). I would estimate 5 to 10% of the adults we see for sleep apnea have this level of severity. This type of apnea is known as obstructive sleep apnea, and is the most common type. The inside of everyones throat is different in size and shape, and it is estimated about 60% of the population in the US has apnea, while around 90% of them don’t know it (those may be old stats, sorry).
The second type of apnea is central apnea, which I don’t plan to go into in much depth in this article because it has different symptoms and treatments, but the diagnosis process for obstructive apnea will also cover central apnea. I will simply say that if you have central apnea you may not snore or be heavy (so don’t swear off a sleep test if you don’t snore or are not overweight!), but you will still feel unrested in the morning. Central apnea is caused by the brain rather than an obstruction, and is most common in those over 60 or those who have incurred head or neck trauma at some point in their life. Though it can be present at any age, we will usually only see it in younger people if they have a mental disability such as autism or down syndrome or cerebral palsy. Other conditions such as multiple sclerosis can greatly increase the likelihood that a person has both central and obstructive apneas.
To return to obstructive apnea, as you gain weight, there is more weight on your chest while you sleep, this means that your lungs have to work harder to take a deep breath, and each time you breath your lungs lift the extra weight on your torso. This is why sleep disordered breathing is usually (but not always) worse when a person is on their back, because the majority of the weight on their torso is right on top of their lungs, making them take shorter breaths (the chest cannot rise as high because of the weight).