What Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

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Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a chronic sleep condition where a person’s breathing slows or stops during sleep. It’s estimated that some 90% of people who have OSA are unaware they have it. Left untreated, it can lead to serious health complications.

This article will explain who is at risk of developing OSA, what symptoms to watch for, and how diagnosis and treatment work. You’ll also learn some ways of coping with sleep apnea. 

Woman with sleep apnea machine

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Causes

There is no single or direct cause of obstructive sleep apnea, but several risk factors exist. If you have risk factors, you are more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea than someone without them. It doesn’t mean you will for sure develop obstructive sleep apnea or that you have sleep apnea and don’t know it. 

If you have the following risk factors and experience daytime tiredness, fatigue, or nodding off, you may want to consider talking to your healthcare provider about screening for obstructive sleep apnea.

Risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Obesity 
  • Family history of obstructive sleep apnea
  • Neck width greater than 16 inches for females and 17 inches for males
  • Smoking
  • Nasal congestion with no other cause
  • Endocrine hormone conditions 
  • Being postmenopausal 
  • Having a small jaw with overbite or lower-hanging and soft palate (upper roof of the mouth)
  • Down syndrome 
  • Swollen tonsils or adenoids (in children)
  • Being over 60 years of age

How Common Is OSA?

OSA prevalence in the United States is estimated between 2% to 14% of the total population.

Symptoms

While everyone is different, people with obstructive sleep apnea typically experience breathing pauses lasting longer than 10 seconds at least five times per hour.

When someone’s breathing rate repeatedly slows throughout each night, they cannot take in adequate amounts of oxygen. These periods are known as hypopneas (slowed breathing). Breathing slows and stops when something is blocking or restricting the airway. This may include the muscles, tongue, or other body tissues. 

Common symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include:   

  • Snoring that is inconsistent (i.e., starting and stopping with loud first breath or gasping for air noises)
  • Headaches after waking
  • Daytime sleepiness (even falling asleep or nodding off)
  • Cognitive decline including memory difficulties and decision making 
  • Mood changes due to excessive tiredness from interrupted sleep (depression, irritability) 

Symptoms may range from mild to moderate to severe. Symptoms of OSA is measured using the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI).

Watch for signs of OSA to prevent it from going untreated. Motor vehicle accidents due to falling asleep while driving are a top concern with obstructive sleep apnea.

Symptom Severity
 Severe Apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) greater than 30 (more than 30 episodes per hour)
 Moderate Between 15 and 30 episodes per hour 
 Mild Between five and 14 episodes per hour 

Diagnosis

It can be difficult to know if you have obstructive sleep apnea if you sleep alone, don’t have quality sleep for other reasons, or if you have a sleeping partner who doesn’t wake from your snoring or apnea noises.

If you or someone you know stops breathing for short periods of time multiple times per hour, these time periods are known as apneas. 

If you perform an at-home sleep study, you’ll likely wear a monitor that will track your oxygen levels and heart rate during the night. This data will be looked at by a sleep specialist, who can determine if you’re slowing or stopping breathing in your sleep and how often.

Treatment

There are many ways to approach obstructive sleep apnea treatment. Your healthcare provider or sleep specialist can discuss which strategies may be best suited to your specific treatment needs.

Common treatment options include:

  • CPAP (continuous positive airway single pressure) mask and machine or similar PAP tools
  • A mouthpiece that helps keep airways open (made by your dentist or orthodontist) 
  • Surgical procedures to repair whatever is creating blockage or restriction (ie., nasal surgery, upper airway surgery, larynx surgery)
  • Nerve stimulation that controls tongue movement 

Prognosis

There is no cure for obstructive sleep apnea, but treatment does help improve disease outcomes and lower the risk of health complications, including early death. However, weight loss may reduce the severity of sleep apnea.

Experts say surgical treatments for obstructive sleep apnea have not been shown to have a high rate of success, but are still beneficial in some cases.

Untreated OSA is associated with serious health conditions including high blood pressure and heart problems and stroke.

Coping

Coping with obstructive sleep apnea can include making some lifestyle changes to reduce symptoms. If you are not sure how to make the changes below, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider for additional support or referral to local health service providers who can help. 


Lifestyle changes to make in order to cope include:

  • Lose weight when necessary.
  • Sleep on your side.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol and limit sedative use (i.e., alcohol and sleeping pills reduce muscle tone. increasing OSA symptoms).

When to See a Healthcare Provider


Your healthcare provider will likely begin by taking a medical history and doing a physical exam. You can expect them to inspect the throat, neck, and mouth. You can determine when it’s time to see a sleep specialist or do an at-home sleep study. 


You may want to consider seeing your healthcare provider about OSA if you are:


  • At risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea
  • Snoring and waking throughout the night
  • Showing signs of excessive daytime tiredness
  • Having trouble with decision making

Summary

Obstructive sleep apnea is a chronic sleep condition with no cure. Several risk factors can contribute to the likelihood of developing sleep apnea including genetics, obesity, and age, among others. Symptoms include snoring, gasping, slowed or stopped breathing during sleeping, excessive daytime tiredness, and eventual blood pressure and heart problems. Treatment and coping options include CPAP machines, surgery, and lifestyle changes such as losing weight or avoiding substances that relax muscles before bedtime. 

A Word From Verywell

If you’re wondering if you have sleep apnea and what to do next, you may want to consider speaking with a sleep specialist about an at-home sleep study option or getting a referral to a sleep specialist. When you have a diagnosis, obstructive sleep apnea can be managed. Good sleep quality is essential in managing your overall physical and mental health.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Michelle Pugle
Michelle Pugle, BA, MA, is an expert health writer with nearly a decade of contributing accurate and accessible health news and information to authority websites and print magazines. Her work focuses on lifestyle management, chronic illness, and mental health. Michelle is the author of Ana, Mia & Me: A Memoir From an Anorexic Teen Mind.