Did you know that approximately 30 million people in the U.S. suffer from obstructive sleep apnea? With another significant chunk of undiagnosed cases, this disorder is more prevalent than most people know.

Sleep apnea results from a blocked upper airway. Patients experience frequent shortness of breath while asleep, which can be fatal if uncontrolled. Characterized by snoring and fatigue after sleep, there is still so much to understand about this disorder. We provide you with a few sleep apnea facts to get started.

1. It Was Discovered in 1965

While sleep apnea research intensified in the 50s and 60s, it’s no indication that people didn’t suffer from the disorder before. If anything, records indicate that patients had symptoms similar to sleep apnea’s from as early as 2,000 years ago. Only the name “sleep apnea” didn’t exist.

By the 19th century, sleep apnea’s symptoms were described as Pickwickian Syndrome. A name that originated from Charles Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers.” In one documented case, an overweight patient named Joe exhibited all the symptoms of modern-day sleep apnea.

At the time, body fat was the leading risk factor for the disorder (it still is), but it’s not the only one. Thanks to continued research and technological growth, we know that having a narrow upper airway, aging, alcohol use, and flabby throat can cause sleep apnea.

By the 50s and 60s, scientists had a clear idea of sleep apnea, and it was no longer referred to as the Pickwickian Syndrome. They are two separate disorders.

2. Collin Sullivan Invented the First CPAP Machine

The 50s and the 60s laid the ground for professionals to dive into the “hows,” “whats,” and “whys” of sleep apnea in the 70s and early 80s. The research focused on the disorder’s causes, symptoms, and diagnosis and treatment. Collin Sullivan’s Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine invention was a game changer.

Together with Eliot Philipson, Colin Sullivan was committed to helping patients suffering from sleep apnea. They started by experimenting with dogs with a history of breathing issues. The trials were largely successful, prompting human tests.

CPAP is one of the most viable treatment options for sleep apnea today. It helps keep the patient’s airways open so they keep breathing even when asleep. Of course, technology has undergone massive changes since the invention of the first unit. It also has its shortcomings.

3. Before CPAP, There Was the Permanent Tracheostomy

We cannot underestimate the importance of CPAP in treating sleep apnea. However, before its invention, patients suffering from the disorder underwent permanent tracheostomy. Judging by its name, you can tell it was only used as a last resort.

The permanent tracheostomy was a surgical procedure that necessitated cutting a hole in a patient’s neck region. A tube was inserted directly to the trachea and connected to a ventilator. This treatment option was risky as it could lead to excessive bleeding, infections, and neck nerve damage.

Apart from CPAP, other modern treatment options for sleep apnea include:

  • auto-titrating technology and heated tube (introduced in 2000)
  • external humidifier and heated humidification (introduced in 1995)

4. There Are Several Types of Sleep Apnea

When you mention sleep apnea to a person, the first thing that will come to their mind is probably obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This is understandably so; it is the most prevalent sleep apnea disorder, affecting millions.

However, there is another variant known as Central Sleep Apnea (CSA). While OSA affects the upper airway, CSA affects the brain, inhibiting its ability to send the right messages to the muscles controlling how the patient breathes.

Then there is a third, less popular type known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea. This occurs when a patient diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea suffers from central sleep apnea. Otherwise known as complex sleep apnea, this disorder primarily results from therapy.

5. It’s Not Clear Who Sleep Apnea Affects More

Studies show the chances of men being diagnosed with sleep apnea is between 13 and 25%, while that of women is between 6 and 10%. However, this disorder affects everyone regardless of race, age, gender, or region.

If anything, further studies show that women are less likely to report or seek medication for sleep apnea. This somewhat undermines the idea that men are more likely to suffer from the disease than women.

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Last Update: August 7, 2023