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7 Sleep Apnea Facts You May Not Have Known

Jul 27, 2020
· 5 mins read

Sleep apnea was considered untreatable except by surgery throughout most of human history. It was not until 1980 that Dr. Colin Sullivan invented the first household sleep apnea treatment, known as the CPAP machine. This marked the start of the modern history of sleep apnea. 

Come learn about this ubiquitous condition that affects an estimated 936 million people around the world. 

Fact #1: Apnea Comes From the Greek Phrase for 'Breathless'

Apnea is the name for the extreme sport of free-diving in Spanish. This sport is characterized by deep, prolonged underwater submersion without the assistance of an oxygen tank. 

Apnea comes from the Ancient Greek ἄπνοια (ápnoia). 'A' means without, and 'pneuma' or 'noia' mean wind or respiration.

Sleep apneas are a symptom or a condition, not the disease itself. They refer to chronic, extended lapses in your nighttime breathing. These can be caused by overly relaxed muscle and tissue in your airways in the case of obstructive sleep apnea, or misfires between your nervous and respiratory systems in the case of central sleep apnea.     

Fact #2: You Can Take Your CPAP Machine Off for a Few Days and Sleep Okay

Deciding to use a CPAP machine is not a one-time cure, but a lifestyle change. Nevertheless, CPAP machines are extraordinarily effective. 

One of the benefits of CPAP nasal treatment is a noticeable decrease in swelling inside the airways. The CPAP cools and soothes a sleep apnea patient's inflammation inside the throat by running air through what are generally blocked passages. 

This drop-in inflammation is good news for your lungs. It generally means more air is coming into your system, you are resting better, and best of all, it lasts a few days after a person stops using their CPAP machine. 

Fact #3: Altitude Makes Sleep Apnea Worse

The JAMA network of medical journalists reports on some of the downsides of traveling high above sea level. 

"At altitude, the reduced oxygen content of the blood induces breathing instability, with periods of deep and rapid breathing alternating with central apnea. This breathing pattern is called high-altitude periodic breathing. It occurs even in healthy persons at altitudes above 6000 ft. It may lead to sleep disturbances with frequent awakenings and a feeling of lack of air."

Having sleep apnea may seem like a logical reason not to travel, but in fact, millions of people each year board an RV or airplane with their portable CPAP machine in tow. 

Whether your destination is Bogotá or Amsterdam, if you decide to travel with your CPAP machine, we recommend you inquire into getting yourself a travel CPAP machine like the hyperlight ResMed AirMini. It only weighs 300 grams or 10.6 oz.

Fact #4: After Menopause, Women Are as Likely to be Affected as Men

Until menopause, women are half as likely as men to experience chronic sleep apnea.

Hot flashes and weight gain are the symptoms of menopause that are well known. What you might not know is that this stops being the case during perimenopause, when hormone changes alter established systems, including the nervous system that controls sleep.

Menopause itself also brings changes in womens' sleep patterns indirectly. 

Fact #5: 80% of Moderate and Severe Cases in the USA Go Undiagnosed

Sleep apnea is not as easy to test for as diabetes or high cholesterol. 

In the cases of these two diseases, a nurse can simply take a blood sample and analyze it. Sleep tests, called polysomnographies, actually require you to fall asleep inside a special machine. This deters many people who might suspect they have sleep apnea from actually getting tested for it, even severe cases. 

Another reason this condition goes widely unnoticed is the broadness of its symptoms. Heart disease, depression, and fatigue can stem from a wide number of medical causes. Sometimes, this means doctors will misdiagnose sleep apnea.

Fact #6: Sleep Apnea is a "New" Thing 

Before sleep monitoring techniques became widely available in the second half of the 20th century, sleep-related respiratory conditions like sleep apnea were mostly ignored by medical science.

Before 1960, most people with sleep apnea who went to a doctor would be advised about lifestyle changes like weight loss and sleeping sideways, but there was no alternative for surgery in severe sleep apnea cases. 

Thankfully, today we not only recognize and treat sleep apnea as an independent condition, we also distinguish it into central and obstructive sleep apnea — two different scenarios that require different treatments.  

Fact #7: Sleeping Sideways May Help

Sleeping sideways is the best position to sleep with sleep apnea. It can grant immense relief with obstructive sleep apnea because gravity will pull the obstruction out of harm's way. 

This is the most common form of sleep apnea. It makes up an estimated 80% of all cases. During OSA, something is physically obstructing the upper airway and preventing fresh oxygen from entering the lungs. 

Most often, this is a combination of age and having excess tissue in and around the airways. Having a larger-than-average tongue or tonsils can lead to blockage.

Bonus Sleep Apnea Fact!

The inventor of PAP machines, Dr. Sullivan, was awarded the Sleep Innovator Award at the National Sleep Foundation’s Annual Awards Dinner in 2009. 

In an interview with, he reflects back to 1980 when his team turned on one of these life-saving machines under laboratory conditions for the first time. 

"We watched as he continued to sleep for around 7 hours, without any apnea, and with the most extraordinarily intense sleep patterns. The patient’s response the next day was equally exciting. He was awake and alert for the first time in years."

Conclusion: Have These Sleep Apnea Facts Been Useful?

A man sleeping soundly on his side

We hope these sleep apnea facts have helped you in some way! Sleep science has advanced so much in these past 50 years that we believe it is absolutely essential that folks with chronic trouble sleeping keep up to date with the latest inventions and innovations.

For more guides, tips, and interesting information about sleep apnea, explore our blog to get brain food for better sleep!

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