What Is Sleep Apnea?
During sleep, it is normal to have brief pauses in breathing. However, when the pauses are longer or they stop altogether, it is called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). According to National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute OSA may be prevalent in older people, but kids and teenagers also suffer from it.
What Happens During Sleep Apnea?
Typically, when we are asleep our muscles tend to relax, including those along the throat, hence blocking the airwaves and causing us to stop breathing, momentarily. When this happens the levels of oxygen in the body reduce and as a result, our brain is then triggered to rouse us up ever so briefly, so that the airways can stop blocking. In normal sleep, this happens very rapidly and soon we are asleep again without recollection of having been awake at all.
But with sleep apnea, these muscles tend to completely relax hence entirely blocking the airway. This pattern recurs throughout the night so they never manage to enter the deeper state of sleep where the body completely rests.
According to Dr. Mary L. Gavin, MD in an article written for KidsHealth.org, OSA is a serious condition that if not treated, can affect their growth, behavior, learning abilities, and even cause heart problems.
What Causes Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
The following risk factors can lead to the development of OSA:
- History of sleep apnea in the family.
- Being overweight
- Medical conditions such as Cerebral Palsy or Down syndrome.
- Physical defects in the structures of the jaw, mouth or throat that obstruct the airway
- A large tongue that can fall back during sleep and obstruct the airway.
What Are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?
These signs in young people usually signal sleep apnea: snoring usually associated with pauses, gasps or snorts; heavy breathing while sleeping; very restless sleep and unusual sleeping positions.
As a result of inadequate sleep, they may have a hard time waking up in the morning; be tired throughout the day or develop daytime sleepiness; have low attention spans and other behavioral problems which in the long run may affect their school performance.
How Is Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?
If your child experiences one or more of the above symptoms your doctor may either recommend a sleep study or seeing a sleep expert.
“A sleep study [called polysomnogram] lets doctors check for OSA and record a variety of body functions while a child sleeps. Sleep studies also can help doctors diagnose central sleep apnea and other sleep disorders”, states Dr. Gavin
Sleep studies are painless and risk-free, but patients typically need to have an overnight stay at the hospital or sleep Center for observation.
How Is Sleep Apnea Treated?
If the apnea is caused by enlarged tonsils or adenoids your doctor will refer your child to an ENT (ear, nose, and throat doctor). The ENT might decide to carry out a procedure known as adenotonsillectomy to take out the tonsils and adenoids. This is a minor surgery that is usually a very effective treatment for OSA.
If the apnea is caused by other factors, a doctor may recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. People with excess weight may need to work with their doctor on a diet change and exercise regimen or any other safe weight-loss methods.