ZocdocAnswersSuffocating at night - what causes this feeling?

Question

Suffocating at night - what causes this feeling?

I wake up at night feeling paralyzed and when I try to breathe from my nose or mouth I can't. It feels like someone is stuffing a pillow over my face, that's the only way I can describe it. Then, after trying to fight it for a minute, I'll fall back to sleep and lose consciousness. This started happening two weeks ago. What could it be? Is this sleep apnea?

Answer

What you are describing sounds very much like Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). It is due to obstruction of the upper airway (usually the tongue blocking the oropharynx). This occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat relax too much to allow normal breathing. When they relax, your airway narrows or closes as you breathe in. It is the most common type of sleep apnea affecting millions of patients a year. This condition frequently comes with an audible snore and the problem is frequently brought up by the patient's bed-partner. The apnea can sometimes last up to 30-40 seconds during sleep, causing drops in their blood level of oxygen. Often a person wakes up enough to take a deep breath before falling back asleep. Chronic sufferers can get day-time fatigue and sleepiness. If you have these symptoms, you should see a primary care physician who can further assess and treat your condition. Some of complications of obstructive sleep apnea may include a sudden drops in blood and oxygen levels that result in an increase in blood pressure, and it may strain the cardiovascular system. Many people with this condition develop high blood pressure which raises the risk of heart failure and stroke. You should see a doctor soon who can help you manage this condition.

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