Obstructive Sleep Apnea


Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which the throat muscles intermittently relax and block the airway during sleep, causing breathing to stop and start. One sign of obstructive sleep apnea is snoring.

The condition may be treated with a device that uses positive pressure to keep the airway open while the individual sleeps. Another option is to insert a mouthpiece that thrusts the lower jaw forward during sleep. Some cases may require surgery.

Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Signs of obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Morning headache
  • High blood pressure
  • Nighttime sweating
  • Difficulty concentrating during the day
  • Awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat
  • Loud snoring
  • Mood changes, such as depression or irritability
  • Noticed episodes of stopped breathing during sleep
  • Abrupt awakening followed by gasping or choking
  • Decreased libido

Causes of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

When the muscles in the back of the throat relax too much, the airway narrows or closes and causes breathing to be inadequate for 10 seconds or longer. This lowers the level of oxygen in the blood and creates a buildup of carbon dioxide. The brain senses this impaired breathing and wakes the body so that the airways may be reopened. Since the awakening is very brief, most people don’t recall it.

The shortness of breath is corrected within one or two deep breaths, and the individual may make a gasping, snorting, or choking sound. This can occur five to 30 times per hour, for the entire night. These unnoticeable disruptions impair the individual’s ability to go through the different phases of sleep and achieve deep sleep.

Many individuals with sleep apnea are unaware they have the condition and believe they slept well all night.

Risk Factors of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

The following factors may increase an individual’s risk of obstructive sleep apnea:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Hypothyroidism or polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Naturally narrow airways
  • High blood pressure
  • Chronic nasal congestion
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Sex
  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • Asthma

Complications of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Complications may include:

  • Daytime fatigue and sleepiness that leads to difficulty concentrating during the day.
  • Cardiovascular problems, such as high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart failure, stroke and arrhythmias.
  • Complications with surgery and medication, such as sedatives, narcotic analgesics and general anesthesia.
  • Eye problems, such as glaucoma.
  • Sleep-deprived partners, potentially disrupting relationships.

When to Consult a Doctor

Signs that a visit to the doctor is necessary include:

  • Snoring loud enough to disturb sleep (yours or others’ sleep)
  • Waking up gasping for air or choking
  • Intermittent pauses in your breathing during sleep
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Falling asleep during the day while doing normal activities

Not everyone who snores has obstructive sleep apnea, but snoring that’s punctuated by periods of silence is a sign of a serious condition. Individuals with obstructive sleep apnea snore the loudest when sleeping on their back; snoring is quieter when sleeping on the side. If sleep doesn’t provide enough rest and causes chronic fatigue, sleepiness or irritability, then a sleep disorder may be the cause.