With obstructive sleep apnea, your breathing pauses while you are asleep because your airway has become narrowed or partly blocked.
When you sleep, all of the muscles in your body become more relaxed. This includes the muscles that help keep your throat open so air can flow into your lungs.
Normally, your throat remains open enough during sleep to let air pass by. However, some people have a narrow throat. When the muscles in their upper throat relax during sleep, the tissues close in and block the airway. This stop in breathing is called apnea.
Loud snoring is a telltale symptom of sleep apnea. Snoring is caused by air squeezing through the narrowed or blocked airway. However, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.
Other factors also may increase your risk:
Sleeping on your back can also cause your airway to become blocked or narrowed.
If you have obstructive sleep apnea, you usually begin snoring heavily soon after falling asleep.
Most people with obstructive sleep apnea don’t know their breathing starts and stops during the night. Usually, a sleep partner or other family members hear the loud snoring, gasping, and snorting. Snoring can be loud enough to hear through walls.
People with sleep apnea may:
Other problems that may occur include:
The health care provider will take your medical history and do a physical exam.
You may be give a sleep study to confirm obstructive sleep apnea.
Other tests that may be performed include:
Treatment helps keep your airway open while you sleep so your breathing doesn’t stop.
Lifestyle changes may help relieve symptoms in people with mild sleep apnea:
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices work best to treat obstructive sleep apnea in most people.
It can take some time to get used to sleeping with CPAP therapy. Good follow-up and support from a sleep center can help you overcome any problems using CPAP.
Dental devices may help some people. You insert them into your mouth while you sleep to keep your jaw forward and the airway open.
Other therapies may be available, but there's little evidence that they work. It's best to talk with a doctor who specializes in sleep problems before trying them.
Surgery may be an option for some people. Often it's a last resort if other treatments didn't work and you have severe symptoms. Surgery may be used to:
Surgery may not completely cure obstructive sleep apnea and may have long-term side effects.
If not treated, sleep apnea can cause:
Daytime sleepiness because of sleep apnea can increase the risk of:
In most cases, treatment completely relieves symptoms and problems from sleep apnea.
Untreated obstructive sleep apnea may lead to or worsen heart disease, including:
Call your health care provider if:
Sleep apnea - obstructive; Apnea - obstructive sleep apnea syndrome; Sleep-disordered breathing; OSA
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Updated by: Allen J. Blaivas, DO, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine UMDNJ-NJMS, Attending Physician in the Division of 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, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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