First described in 1965, sleep apnea is a breathing disorder characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep. It owes its name to a Greek word, apnea, that means “want of breath.”

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when air cannot flow into or out of a person’s nose or mouth, although efforts to breathe continue. Sleep apnea is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition that is far more common than generally understood. As common as adult diabetes, it affects more than twelve million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health. An estimated 5 in 100 people — typically overweight, middle-aged men — suffer from sleep apnea.

In a given night, the number of involuntary breathing pauses, or “apneic events,” may be as high as 20 to 30 or more per hour, and can last anywhere from 10 seconds to three minutes. These breathing pauses are almost always accompanied by snoring between apnea episodes, although not everyone who snores has this condition.

Sleep apnea can also be characterized by choking sensations. Although an individual may not recall waking up frequently during the night, deep restorative sleep is disrupted temporarily but repeatedly. As a result, sleep deprivation, early morning headaches, and excessive daytime sleepiness can develop.

Early recognition and treatment of sleep apnea is important because it may be associated with irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. If left untreated, other complications may include memory problems, weight gain, impotence, and headaches.

Moreover, untreated sleep apnea may be responsible for job impairment and motor vehicle crashes. Risk factors include being male, overweight, and over the age of forty, but sleep apnea can strike anyone at any age, even children.

Children with sleep apnea may snore, squeak, and thrash while sleeping. During the day, a child who suffers from sleep apnea will be sluggish or termed “lazy.” In older children, sleep apnea occurs in boys and girls who are overweight or who have unusually large tonsils and adenoids. Since snoring is not normal for any child, parents should report this to their physician.

Because of the lack of awareness on the part of the public and healthcare professionals, the vast majority of apnea cases remain undiagnosed and therefore untreated, despite the fact that this serious disorder can have significant consequences. Fortunately, sleep apnea can be diagnosed and treated. Several treatment options exist, and research into additional options continues.

Sleep apnea seems to run in some families, which suggests a possible genetic basis. Children may also grind their teeth in their sleep, and make loud noises they cannot duplicate when awake. Fortunately, most cases of snoring and grinding with children resolve over time without treatment.