Sleep apnea is a type of sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing or instances of shallow or infrequent breathing during sleep. Each pause in breathing, called an apnea, can last for several seconds to several minutes, and may occur 5 to 30 times or more in an hour.
Similarly, each abnormally shallow breathing event is called a hypopnea. Sleep apnea is classified as a dyssomnia, meaning abnormal behavior or psychological events occur during sleep. When breathing is paused, carbon dioxide builds up the bloodstream. Chemoreceptors in the blood stream note the high carbon dioxide levels. The brain is signaled to wake the person sleeping and breathe in air. Breathing normally will restore oxygen levels and the person will fall asleep again. Sleep apnea is often diagnosed with an overnight sleep test called a polysomnogram, or "sleep study".
There are three forms of sleep apnea: central (CSA), obstructive (OSA), and complex or mixed sleep apnea. In CSA, breathing is interrupted by a lack of respiratory effort; in OSA, breathing is interrupted by a physical block to airflow despite respiratory effort, and snoring is common.
According to the National Institutes of Health, 12 million Americans have OSA. There are more cases of sleep apnea still because people either do not report the condition or do not know they have sleep apnea.
Regardless of type, an individual with sleep apnea is rarely aware of having difficulty breathing, even upon awakening. Sleep apnea is recognized as a problem by others witnessing the individual during episodes or is suspected because of its effects on the body.
Symptoms may be present for years (or even decades) without identification, during which time the sufferer may become conditioned to the daytime sleepiness and fatigue associated with significant levels of sleep disturbance.