What is obstructive sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea causes the wall of the throat to relax and constrict while asleep, thus disrupting normal breathing. It is important to note that there are 2 type of breathing distinctive of obstructive sleep apnea.

  • Apnea in which the soft tissues and muscles in the throat relax and collapse suitably to trigger full blockage of the airway for 10 seconds or more
  • Hypopnea involves partial blockage of the airway resulting to diminished airflow higher than 50% for 10 seconds or more.

What happens if I have obstructive sleep apnea?

Individuals who have obstructive sleep apnea can suffer from recurrent episodes of apnea and hypopnea throughout the night. During an episode, the reduced level of oxygen in the brain pulls out the individual from deep sleep to a state of light sleep or wakefulness. As a result, the airway opens up and the individual can breathe normally.

Obstructive sleep apnea

Individuals who have obstructive sleep apnea can suffer from recurrent episodes of apnea and hypopnea throughout the night.

When the individual falls back into deep sleep, further episodes of apnea and hypopnea occurs. Take note that these events can occur once every 1-2 minutes throughout the night in severe cases.

Most that have obstructive sleep apnea loudly snore. The breathing is usually labored and noisy and often disrupted by snorting or gasping with every episode of apnea. The interruptions while sleeping can make the individual very tired during the day. Many could not recall of the interrupted breathing, thus the condition is left undetected unless a family member, partner or friend notices the symptoms while the individual sleeps.

When to seek further care

A doctor should be consulted if the individual suspects that he/she has obstructive sleep apnea. During the consultation, other potential reasons for the symptoms are assessed and an assessment of sleep can be carried out in a local sleep center.

Causes of obstructive sleep apnea

It is relatively normal for the soft tissues and muscles in the throat to relax and collapse to a certain degree while sleeping. In many, this does not cause any breathing issues, but those with obstructive sleep apnea, the airway constricted due to the various factors including:

  • Large-sized neck
  • Being obese or overweight
  • Using medications that have a sedative effect
  • Drinking alcohol or smoking especially before going to sleep
  • Unusual neck structure such as large tonsils, narrow airway, small lower jaw and large tongue or adenoids

Who are at risk?

Obstructive sleep apnea is quite common but affects more men than women. In most cases, they tend to develop among individuals 30-60 years old but can affect individuals of all ages including children.

Treatment for obstructive sleep apnea

Luckily, obstructive sleep apnea can be managed using various treatment options that can minimize the symptoms. The commonly used treatment options include the following:

  • Lifestyle modifications such as cutting down weight, sleeping on the side and limiting alcohol consumption
  • Using a mandibular advancement device (MAD) which is fitted around the teeth to hold the tongue and jaw forward to increase the space at the rear of the throat while sleeping.
  • Using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device can prevent the airway from closing while sleeping by providing a continuous supply of compressed air via a mask

Surgery is also considered as an option if obstructive sleep apnea might be due to a physical issue that requires surgical correction such as an unusual inner neck structure.


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