Sleep Apnea (Obstructive)

What is a Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a disorder where a person’s breathing becomes shallow and pauses for at least ten seconds, and these pauses occur on a regular basis. There are many types of sleep apnea and many causes for the condition. One sub-category of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea.

When a person with this specific apnea is asleep, his or her tongue and throat muscles relax and those tissues block the airway, thus causing snoring, gasping, or loud snorting to get air. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in males and those who are carrying excess weight. Those with naturally small airways or enlarged tissues in the oral cavity can also be at risk for this condition.

What are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

The hallmark symptom of obstructive sleep apnea is very loud snoring, which is often interrupted by either the person waking up briefly or by gasping noises. However, because this condition occurs while a person is asleep, he or she may not even know about the snoring symptom.

But there are other signs of sleep apnea. Extreme fatigue and tiredness may make a person more prone to accidents at home, while driving, at work, and so on. The fatigue can also cause irritability, hypertension, a depressed mood, and cognitive issues. A person may need to take more naps to get rest, but will still feel fatigued afterward. A person may rotate between episodes of hypersomnia or insomnia.

How is Sleep Apnea Treated?

There are many treatment options for obstructive sleep apnea. If a person’s tongue, tonsils, or other soft tissues are the causes of the obstructions, surgery may be required to stimulate muscles and prevent collapse or to remove pieces of tissue. Mouth appliances and machines that provide air pressure can be worn while sleeping. If a person’s obesity is the cause of sleep apnea, or she may need to focus on diet and exercise to shed excess weight.

If a person cannot lose the excess weight on his or her own, then bariatric surgery, such as a laparoscopic band or a gastric bypass, may be recommended. Some behavioral therapies could benefit a sleep apnea patient. For instance, mouth exercises can help strengthen a person’s mouth and throat muscles and prevent collapsing tissues. Positional therapy can teach them how to use special pillows to set themselves up in bed so that obstructions don’t occur.

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Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
August 16, 2017