Medical professionals estimate that more than 20 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, and that only a fraction of those people have been diagnosed and have started CPAP therapy for treatment. Are you among the undiagnosed? If so, sleep apnea could be holding you back, and treating it effectively could change your life.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which the upper airway is blocked during sleep, causing a person to stop breathing for a period of time. Apneas are generally defined as a 90% blockage of airflow for at least 10 seconds. If the obstruction is less than 90% but more than 50%, then the obstruction is considered to be a hypopnea event. Hypopnea events can be thought of as periods of shallow or insufficient breathing. These blockages - either full apneas, or hypopneas - occur when the soft tissue of the airway relaxes and collapses during sleep.

Snoring is similar to a hypopnea event in that the soft tissue relaxes, and may even partially obstruct the airway, but rather than creating a significant obstruction, the tissue simply vibrates as the air moves past. This is very similar to wind making waves on water. Snoring can be disruptive for obvious reasons - specifically, the noise from snoring can awaken both the snorer and anyone else within hearing range. Like apnea events and hypopnea events, vibratory snore events can disturb sleep to the point that the sleeper doesn't get into the stage of restful and restorative sleep.

Apneas, hypopneas and snoring events can occur hundreds of times throughout the night.

So the question is this: do you have sleep apnea? If you wake up with headaches, or if you feel tired throughout much of the day, or if you have trouble concentrating on relatively simple tasks, you might be suffering from sleep apnea. And it might be holding you back from realizing your full potential.

If you're not sure if you have sleep apnea, there are a couple of ways to check, even before seeing a doctor.

The first method is to have someone watch you when you sleep. Here are the signs the observer should watch for:

• do you stop breathing, even for just a few seconds at a time when you're asleep?
• does your breathing become very shallow, even for just a few seconds at a time when you're asleep?
• do you gasp for air after a period of not breathing or after shallow breathing?
• do you snore?

If the observer witnesses these events, then it's very likely you have sleep apnea.

The second method for determining if you may have sleep apnea involves answering questions from two questionnaires. The most widely used standardized tools used by medical professionals in diagnosing sleep apnea are the Berlin Questionnaire and the Epworth Sleepiness Scale. These two tests can accurately predict the presence of sleep apnea in patients.

If after observation or after reviewing the tests for sleep apnea you feel you may be suffering from the condition, then your next step is to treat it. The good news is that the most common treatment - CPAP therapy - is relatively easy and inexpensive.

When not treated, sleep apnea can be damaging to the entire body. Complications from low oxygen levels in the blood and from lack of good restorative sleep can wreak havoc on the human body, and include heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. If you're feeling like sleep apnea is holding you back in your life, and if you're concerned about the associated health risks, then it's time for you to get treatment.

CPAP is an acronym for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. CPAP therapy consists of a CPAP machine or "flow generator" that delivers air through a mask worn by the patient. The air delivered into the patient's airway acts as a stent to keep the airway open. It's a very simple and effective concept that's been helping people with sleep apnea for over three decades. Generally, CPAP users experience a good night of sleep starting on the first night of CPAP use, and begin to feel noticeably refreshed the first morning after use.

To begin using CPAP therapy you'll need a prescription from your doctor, so talk to your doctor about your symptoms. Take this article along with the Berlin Questionnaire and Epworth Sleepiness Scale tests to your next appointment with your doctor, so you can start down the path to treatment.

Author's Bio: 

Andrew Senske is the president of a leading online retailer of CPAP machines and CPAP masks for the treatment of sleep apnea. has served tens of thousands of customers online since 2001. For more information - including helpful articles designed to help you achieve compliance with your CPAP therapy - visit today.