According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, about 22 million Americans have sleep apnea and about 80 percent of those cases are undiagnosed. Sleep apnea is an involuntary sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts.

Sleep apnea can occur when tissue in the back of the throat blocks the airway. If the airway is blocked, the amount of oxygen delivered to the body’s organs is reduced. When blood-oxygen levels drop low enough, the body wakes itself up. Sometimes it happens so fast that it goes unnoticed to the sleeper. People with sleep apnea can stop breathing hundreds of times during the night and often for a minute or longer.

Sleep apnea can have serious and life-shortening consequences if it is not treated. These include high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, memory problems, diabetes and depression.

Symptoms of sleep apnea:

  • loud snoring
  • fatigue
  • insomnia
  • persistent daytime sleepiness
  • awakening out of breath during the night
  • frequently waking in the morning with a dry mouth or a headache

The most widely used treatment for sleep apnea is a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. The CPAP has a mask that goes over the nose, or sometimes nose and mouth, during sleep and supplies pressurized air that flows into the person’s throat. The increased air pressure keeps the airway open. Sometimes people still struggle with sleep apnea even after they use a CPAP. In those cases, surgery may be needed.

Sleep apnea is sometimes caused by the back of the tongue or tonsils blocking the airway. In these cases, an uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UVPPP) is required. UVPPP involves shortening the soft palate and removing the tonsils, and it has been the most common sleep apnea surgical procedure performed in the past 25 years. In addition, robotic-assisted resection of the base of tongue is a minimally invasive approach to remove obstructive tongue tissue blocking the airway. After this surgery, sleep apnea is often corrected. At Long Beach Medical Center, the da Vinci Si Robotic Surgical System is used to remove redundant tongue tissue and is performed in conjunction with the UVPPP to help patients get a good night’s rest.

In order to properly diagnose sleep apnea, a physician must conduct a sleep study in a sleep lab, usually overnight. A sleep study monitors activity during sleep such as measuring brain waves, heart rate and rhythm, breathing patterns and oxygen levels. Long Beach Medical Center performs sleep studies in the MemorialCare Sleep Disorders Center at Long Beach Medical Center and Miller Children's & Women's Hospital Long Beach.

If you feel you may be unknowingly living with sleep apnea or would like to learn more about a sleep study or about treatments available at Long Beach Medical Center, call (877) 696-3622.