What Is Apnea: One Type of Breathing Problem

Understanding Apnea

Anesthesia and Surgery Image
Anesthesia & Surgery. Photo: © Andrew Olney/Getty Images

Definition: Apnea is the medical term for not breathing, either for a brief period of time or a more extended period of time. From the Greek words "a" without and  "pnea-" breath.  Holding your breath is an example of apnea, as you temporarily stop breathing then start again. 

There are many types of apnea, some can be caused intentionally by medication given during surgery.  Others can be caused by severe illness, where the patient is unable to breathe well enough to support the oxygen needs of their body.

 In general, apnea is a serious condition that needs to be treated, whether it is happening due to illness, or during sleep.  

Sleep Apnea

The best-known type of apnea is sleep apnea, a condition where a person stops breathing repeatedly while sleeping.  This can range from mild to severe, and is worsened by a "close throat" a condition where the structures of the neck including tonsils, adenoids, tongue and the size of the neck itself make the airway small.  Snoring is often present during sleep apnea.

Many times sleep apnea is diagnosed by the person who sleeps next to the individual with sleep apnea, as they are often alarmed when the breathing stops.  A sleep study is done to formally diagnose this condition, which is treated with a breathing machine called a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure).  

New ways of testing for sleep apnea are becoming more common.  For many years, the patient would have to go to a sleep lab where they would be closely monitored while they slept in the lab.

 This would require electrodes with wires to be placed on the head to monitor the depth and quality of sleep. A monitor was also placed on the finger or forehead that would read the oxygen level in the blood.  The data was used to determine if the patient had sleep apnea.  Then a second night in the sleep lab would be scheduled if it was determined that the patient has sleep apnea and was diagnosed with a need for CPAP.

 That night would be used to select appropriate settings for the CPAP machine.  

Now, many patients take home an oxygen monitor that they wear during sleep as a screening test. The monitor is very small and is typically worn on the finger at bedtime.  This simple test is done at home, and if the monitor indicates that sleep apnea may be present, further testing can be done.  For the patients who do not have sleep apnea, this screening test can save time and significant amounts of money.

Apnea in Sick Patients

In very sick patients who are on a ventilator, an apnea test may be performed to determine if the patient is able to breathe on their own, or if they are apneic and require a ventilator to breathe.  This means that the settings on the ventilator are changed to allow the patient to do more of the work of breathing. If they are successful at breathing on their own, their breathing is improving and they may be able to be removed from the ventilator.  

Apnea is to be avoided whenever possible.

 Breathing too little can be as harmful as not breathing at all over time.  Sick patients in the hospital are closely monitored to determine if they are able to provide enough oxygen to their body.  If they are not, breathing treatments, oxygen supplementation and even a ventilator may be necessary.

Apnea During Surgery

During surgery, a patient is apneic because of the anesthesia drugs given that paralyze the respiratory system. For that reason, patients receiving general anesthesia will be on a ventilator during the procedure. This apnea is reversed as anesthesia wears off and the patient begins to breathe on their own again.  

Pronunciation: app - knee - uhh

Also Known As: apneic, sleep apnea,

Common Misspellings: apknea, appnea, apnea, apkneeuh, appkneuh, appnic, apnick, apnik, apneck,

Examples: The patient was kept on the ventilator for a few extra hours after surgery because he was having periods of apnea.

Continue Reading