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What Is Sleep Apnea? (video)

What is the difference between sleep apnea and insomnia?

What is the difference between sleep apnea and insomnia?

John Cronin, MD, a sleep medicine specialist at Scripps Clinic, discusses sleep apnea and insomnia. Dr. Cronin explains how these two common sleep-related conditions are different, how each is diagnosed and why getting a good night's sleep is so critical for our health.

Video transcript

What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a very common condition. In the adult population, it might be anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of the population that can have this condition. Basically at its core, it's a breathing problem that occurs with sleep. When the brain goes to sleep at night the airway muscles relax and that allows the airway to narrow down.


At night time, the upper airway is like a cylinder back behind the tongue. When your muscles relax at night, that airway relaxes as well and you might start to have a little snoring. But eventually what happens is that airway will collapse. At that point a person is suffocating. They don't know it. Their brain starts to know it and within about 10 seconds the brain will wake up and open the airway up. Despite the fact that this sounds traumatic, people don't know that this is happening all night long. And so it does two things. It really diminishes the sleep quality a person achieves. They can get eight hours of sleep but they never feel rested. Also, it might put a lot of extra stress on the body. We know it can affect the blood pressure, the heart and the brain. These are chronic, long-term exposures that we want to try to rectify.

What is insomnia?

The basic definition of insomnia really is that a person can't sleep well and that there's a daytime consequence. Could be the person is irritable. They're tired. They're fatigued. They can't think right. So, there's a negative consequence to that bad night of sleep.


Most adults have had a bad night of sleep before. Fortunately most of us get right through it and the next night we're back on track. But some people, they develop really a chronic problem where they're just nightly not getting a good night of sleep. We really work to try to undo that for people.

How do you know if you have sleep apnea or insomnia?

Sleep apnea is really diagnosed by doing a sleep study. There are a couple different ways to do that, depending on the person's clinical scenario and their issues. Sometimes we'll bring them to the sleep center and do an overnight sleep test where they sleep overnight with our technicians and our staff at the center. Sometimes we can do this at home, which is a newer avenue for us to treat sleep apnea. And that's a little bit simpler. We don't get the same amount of quality data, but it's still a quite useful test that we can do.


For insomnia, there is really no definitive diagnostic test for it. It's really a clinical diagnosis made with a clinician and we try to characterize that and define that in terms of: How long has a person been suffering? What are the critical components to it? What are the underlying factors? What are the other conditions, whether it's chronic pain, different medications or other illnesses that might contribute? We really need that information to formulate a plan of action for that patient.

Why is it so important to get a good night's sleep?

My personal philosophy and approach with sleep is that it's so critical for every component of our health, our daytime function, our brains, our hearts and every other organ system in our body. Because we don't know what's going on when we're asleep, it's really important if you have any concern at all to look into it. Because why would you ever want to live life with bad sleep if you could do otherwise? It's fundamental to our function, our alertness, our mood and our well-being.


To me, it's really important to make an informed decision about my own health. I try to encourage people to do the same. That means you should be proactive, learn about your sleep, learn about what could be different. Because if you have a problem, it's probably not going away until it's addressed. Sleep is a little bit unusual because you really don't necessarily know what's going on at night. And so, here's the opportunity to change that.

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