Sleep apnea is a disorder which affects the sufferer’s ability to breathe properly while sleeping. The disease presents as periods of shallow breathing or complete pauses in breathing during sleep, often followed by loud snoring and, in some cases, choking noises.

Sleep apnea can have a major affect on a patient’s quality of life due to the oxygen deprivation causing them to feel tired or sleepy during the day, although one suffering from it may not realize until a family member notices how they sleep.


History and Discovery of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea was discovered in 1965, but the signs and symptoms have been described in literature previously.

Sleep apnea has been known as Ondine’s curse because of the 1938 play Ondine, based on Germanic folklore, which describes a curse where a person would forget to breathe while sleeping.

In Charles Dickens’s novel The Pickwick Papers, Dickens’s description of Joe “the fat boy” is also an accurate description of an adult with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, leading famous physician William Osler to coin the syndrome as “Pickwickian syndrome.”

In 1981, Colin Sullivan and associates introduced the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which revolutionized the treatment of sleep apnea.

Previously, sleep apnea treatment was exclusively focused on treating the obstruction of the upper airway, often with invasive surgery.

CPAP machines, though loud in their infancy, offered relief through a nightly mask that keeps the airway open during sleep, improving the lives of those suffering from sleep apnea greatly without the need for surgery.

Concurrently, medical science’s understanding of sleep apnea expanded such that it became known as a major medical issue, affecting 24% of middle-aged males and 9% of middle-aged females.

Symptoms and Treatment of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness, problems with vision, and problems with staying alert. These symptoms increase the risk for driving or work-based accidents, as well as causing behavioral struggles in the sufferer as they contend with increased irritability and moodiness due to being tired on a regular basis.

If left untreated, sleep apnea can cause other health problems such as diabetes, or in extreme cases, death during sleep due to oxygen deprivation.

Generally, an in-office sleep study called a polysomnography can confirm if a patient is suffering from sleep apnea. The sleep study watches for pauses in breathing and a diagnosis is generated based on how often, if at all, the patient stops breathing during sleep.

In severe sleep apnea cases, a patient may breathe too shallow or stop breathing entirely over 30 times per hour.

Mild sleep apnea could be treated with changes to one’s diet if it is being caused by obesity.

Moderate to severe sleep apnea is usually treated with a CPAP machine. Patients who are unable to use a CPAP machine may opt for some type of corrective surgery, or diaphragm pacing, a treatment that applies rhythmic electrical shocks to the diaphragm to promote breathing.


Uses and Functions for CPAP

CPAP machines consist of a flow generator, a hose, and a facial mask worn at night. Pressurized air is pumped through the hose and into the facial mask, which keeps the patient’s airways open and prevents their breathing from stopping during sleep.

Many sleep apnea patients report amazing relief from their symptoms after using a CPAP machine for a few nights, as their body is finally able to get the oxygen it needs to function at full capacity, sometimes for the first night in years.

For those suffering from extreme cases of sleep apnea where their body regularly stops breathing during sleep, the CPAP machine may even be saving their lives.

While CPAP machines are generally used to treat sleep apnea, they can also be used to treat premature infants whose lungs may not be fully developed, or who may be suffering from infant respiratory distress syndrome, the leading cause of death amongst infants born premature.

CPAP greatly improves survival for these infants and prevents doctors from having to treat them with steroids.

Overall, CPAP machines are a highly beneficial medical tool, improving and even saving the lives of thousands of patients every day.