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Obstructive sleep apnea

Contents of this page:


Obstructive sleep apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea

Alternative Names    Return to top

Sleep apnea - obstructive; Apnea - obstructive sleep apnea syndrome

Definition    Return to top

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which a person has episodes of stopped breathing during sleep.

See also:

Causes    Return to top

Normally, the muscles of the upper part of the throat help keep the airway open and allow air to flow into the lungs. Even though these muscles usually relax during sleep, the upper throat remains open enough to let air pass by.

However, some people have a narrower throat area, and, during sleep, relaxation of the muscles causes the passage to completely close. This prevents air from getting into the lungs. Loud snoring and labored breathing occur. During deep sleep, breathing can stop for a short period of time (often more than 10 seconds). This is called apnea.

An apnea episode is followed by a sudden attempt to breathe, and a change to a lighter stage of sleep. The result is fragmented sleep that is not restful, leading to excessive daytime drowsiness.

Older obese men seem to be at higher risk, although as many as 40% of people with obstructive sleep apnea are not obese. The following factors may also increase your risk for obstructive sleep apnea:

Drinking alcohol or using sedatives before sleep may make you more likely to have an episode of apnea.

Symptoms    Return to top

It is important to emphasize that, often, the person who has obstructive sleep apnea does not remember the episodes of apnea during the night. The main symptoms are usually associated with excessive daytime sleepiness due to poor sleep during the night. Often, family members, especially spouses, witness the periods of no breathing.

A person with obstructive sleep apnea usually snores heavily soon after falling asleep. The snoring continues at a regular pace for a period of time, often becoming louder, but is then interrupted by a long silent period during which there is no breathing. This is followed by a loud snort and gasp, and the snoring returns. This pattern repeats frequently throughout the night.

Symptoms that may be observed include:

Additional symptoms that may be associated with this disease:

Exams and Tests    Return to top

The health care provider will perform a physical exam. This will involve carefully checking your mouth, neck, and throat. You will be asked about your medical history. Often, a survey that asks a series of questions about daytime sleepiness, sleep quality, and bedtime habits is given.

A sleep study (polysomnogram) is used to confirm obstructive sleep apnea.

Other tests that may be performed include:

Treatment    Return to top

The goal is to keep the airway open so that breathing does not stop during sleep.

The following may relieve symptoms of sleep apnea in some individuals:

If these measures do not help, your doctor may recommend continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. CPAP is the first-line treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. For information on this treatment, see:CPAP

Surgery may be an option in some cases. This may involve:

Surgery to remove the tonsills and adenoids may cure the condition in children; it does not seem to help most adults.

Outlook (Prognosis)    Return to top

When treated correctly, obstructive sleep apnea may be controlled. However, many patients are unable or unwilling to tolerate CPAP therapy.

Possible Complications    Return to top

During the nonbreathing episodes, blood oxygen levels falls. Persistent low levels of oxygen (hypoxia) may cause many of the daytime symptoms. If the condition is severe enough, pulmonary hypertension may develop, leading to right-sided heart failure or cor pulmonale.

Other complications include:

When to Contact a Medical Professional    Return to top

Call your health care provider if you have excessive daytime sleepiness, or if you or your family notice symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea.

If you have this condition, call if symptoms do not improve with treatment or if new symptoms develop.

Decreased consciousness, extreme sleepiness, hallucinations, personality changes, and persistent confusion can be a sign of a medical emergency. Seek immediate medical attention or call your local emergency number, such as 911.

Prevention    Return to top

Children with very large tonsils and adenoids may develop sleep apnea and related problems. They should be evaluated by a health care provider to determine whether they need to have their tonsils or adenoids removed.

See: Tonsillectomy

References    Return to top

Patel NP, Ahmed M, Rosen I. Split-night polysomnography. Chest. 2007 Nov;132(5):1664-71.

Basner RC. Continuous positive airway pressure for obstructive sleep apnea. N Engl J Med. 2007 Apr 26;356(17):1751-8.

Patil SP, Schneider H, Schwartz AR, Smith PL. Adult obstructive sleep apnea: pathophysiology and diagnosis. Chest. 2007 Jul;132(1):325-37.

Darrow DH. Surgery for pediatric sleep apnea. Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 2007 Aug;40(4):855-75.

Friedman M, Schalch P. Surgery of the palate and oropharynx. Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 2007 Aug;40(4):829-43.

Update Date: 9/11/2008

Updated by: Allen J. Blaivas, DO, Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine, Department of Veteran Affairs, VA New Jersey Health Care System, East Orange , NJ . Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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