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.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Causes

Several conditions can cause or worsen obstructive sleep apnea. Any of the following risks heighten your chance of acquiring sleep apnea:

  • You are male
  • You are overweight, which can cause tissue to press against the chest, neck, and back of the throat
  • You are older than age 40
  • You have a neck circumference of 17 inches or larger in men or 16 inches or larger in women
  • You have large tonsils, a large tongue, or a small jaw bone
  • You have a family history of sleep apnea
  • You suffer from gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD
  • You suffer from a nasal obstruction due to a deviated septum, allergies, or sinus problems
  • You inherited a congenital condition such as a recessed jaw or cleft palate
  • You smoke, which can increase inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway
  • You sit for extended periods of time, which can send settled fluid into your sinuses from your legs when you lie down at night
  • You suffer from a neurological or neuromuscular illness such as Parkinson’s Disease, ALS, or Alzheimer’s Disease

Although more men than women suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, the risk for overweight women increases, especially after menopause. After the age of 65, the odds of developing sleep apnea double or triple for everyone.

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.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Prevention

Many of the risk factors for sleep apnea can be controlled. Follow these recommendations:

– Lose weight; your body mass index (BMI) should be 30 or less to reduce your risk (25 is considered ideal)
– Avoid sedatives and alcohol within two or three hours of bedtime; these can relax the throat to the point of blocking the airway.
– Exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet
– Don’t smoke, or if you already smoke, stop smoking

Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
March 30, 2018