What is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)?

Dr. Dawn Marcus

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea, caused by blockage of the upper airway. People with obstructive sleep apnea often report loud snoring. Your sleeping partner is likely to tell you that you snore loudly or stop breathing periodically during your sleep. Being overweight increases your risk for obstructive sleep apnea.

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Obstructive sleep apnea is a life-threatening disorder, most common among overweight men, in which breathing stops hundreds of times each night. It occurs when the upper airway is blocked by excess tissue such as a large uvula, tongue, tonsils, fatty deposits, or a floppy rim at the back of the palate. The hallmark of this condition is heavy snoring, but many snorers do not have this problem.

Several different types of sleep-related breathing disorders exist, but the most common is obstructive sleep apnea. People with this condition might wake hundreds of times a night, whether they are conscious of it or not, because of a lack of oxygen caused by a complete or partial blocking of the upper airway by some physical obstruction.

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Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the airway completely collapses, blocking airflow into the lungs. The harder one tries to breathe, the tighter the airway seals. This airway obstruction persists until the brain partially awakens the person. Unconsciously, he/she will close the jaw returning the tongue and throat to a normal position.

The sleep apnea cycle—falling asleep, jaw relaxing, airway collapsing, unconsciously awakening with a gasp, falling back asleep—can repeat itself 50 or more times per hour during the night. With a blocked air passage, one does not receive enough oxygen. Both the awakenings and oxygen deprivation can then trigger other health problems.

Dr. Keith A. Kreitz, MD
Bariatric Medicine (Obesity Medicine) Specialist

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a condition where the airway collapses during sleep. The muscles that keep the airway open while a person is awake relax during sleep. If a person is heavy enough, particularly a person with an apple body type, the extra central weight presses on the chest and airway causing choking, interruptions in breathing and lower blood oxygen.

Dr. Paul T. Hoff, MD
Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT Specialist)

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is characterized by snoring and frequent interruptions in the normal pattern of breathing often described as gasping or choking episodes. These episodes can occur many times per hour and are associated with significant drops in blood oxygen levels, cardiac arrhythmias, frequent arousals and decrease in deep sleep (REM sleep). OSA is recognized as a major contributor to many chronic diseases and by itself significantly impacts quality of life for both the person with OSA and his or her partner, both of whom often suffer from restless, non-restorative sleep.

Dr. Christopher E. Morgan, MD
Sleep Medicine Specialist

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is repetitive partial or complete blockage of airflow during sleep (often with snoring). It can lead to low oxygen levels during the night, increased risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, arrhythmias, diabetes, memory disorders and headaches. Diagnosis is made through a sleep study. Treatment can include a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) mask, oral device, or surgery.

In obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), your breathing repeatedly stops (apnea) or gets very shallow (hypopnea) off and on during sleep. These interruptions can happen frequently—as many as 30 times or more each hour—and can last for a few seconds to a minute each time. Here's what happens:

  • Tissues at the back of your airway (such as the back of your throat, your tonsils, or your tongue) relax so much that they block or restrict airflow.
  • When airflow is blocked or stops, your brain sends a "wake-up" signal to your body, and you take a deeper breath that opens your airway.
  • You breathe normally again until the next interruption.
Dr. Ravi S. Aysola, MD
Pulmonary Disease Specialist

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep disorder where the upper airway partially or, in some cases, completely collapses, blocking air flow and forcing oxygen levels to drop. That can trigger awakening from sleep and, over the long term, increase the risk of heart disease, heart failure and high blood pressure.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a common and serious sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing during sleep. The airway repeatedly becomes blocked, limiting the amount of air that reaches your lungs. When this happens, you may snore loudly or making choking noises as you try to breathe. Your brain and body becomes oxygen deprived and you may wake up. This may happen a few times a night, or in more severe cases, several hundred times a night.

In many cases a temporary pause in breathing is caused by the tissue in the back of the throat collapsing. The muscles of the upper airway relax when you fall asleep. If you sleep on your back, gravity can cause the tongue to fall back. This narrows the airway, which reduces the amount of air that can reach your lungs. The narrowed airway causes snoring by making the tissue in back of the throat vibrate as you breathe.

There are many people with sleep apnea who have not been diagnosed or received treatment. A sleep medicine physician can diagnose obstructive sleep apnea using an in-lab sleep study or a home sleep apnea test. Sleep apnea is manageable using continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, oral appliance therapy or surgery.

Obstructive sleep apnea in adults is considered a sleep-related breathing disorder. Causes and symptoms differ for obstructive sleep apnea in children and central sleep apnea.

This content originally appeared on the American Academy of Sleep Medicine website.

Debra Fulghum Bruce PhD
Healthcare Specialist

With OSA, your lungs do not get enough fresh air so the brain wakes you up just enough to catch your breath and unblock the air passage. You may experience frequent sleep interruptions, along with choking or gasping spells upon waking.

OSA is so subtle that you may not even realize that you were aroused from sleep, yet when this occurs many times during the night, the results are poor sleep, reduced oxygen in the body and daytime sleepiness. In fact, in many cases, it is your bed partner who tells you of the sleep apnea episodes and becomes frightened because of your inability to breathe. Obstructive sleep apnea can also lead to severe cardiac and pulmonary problems, even to death. Little do millions of men realize that one of the symptoms of OSA is impotence.

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Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) afflicts more than 12 million Americans and is characterized by repeated stops and starts of breathing during sleep when throat muscles relax and block the airway. Left untreated, those with sleep apnea suffer from poor quality sleep and chronic sleep deprivation, leading to health issues that can be life-threatening: weight gain, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a chronic condition that occurs when the muscles that keep the airway open relax during sleep, allowing soft tissue to collapse and block the airway. As a result, repeated breathing pauses occur, which often reduce oxygen levels. These breathing pauses are followed by brief awakenings that disturb sleep.

This content originally appeared on the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine (AADSM) website.

Sleep apnea means abnormal breathing during sleep; "apnea" means "without breathing" and refers to long pauses between breaths. It is a surprisingly common sleep disorder. Because apnea usually causes a slight awakening, having this disorder robs a person of deep, continuous and refreshing sleep. It also causes drops in oxygen level in the blood, which can cause changes in blood pressure and strain on the heart and lungs. People with sleep apnea also frequently have snoring, however not all snorers have sleep apnea and not all patients with apnea snore. Children also can have sleep apnea and sleep breathing disturbance, although this discussion is primarily applicable to adults only.

There are two types of sleep apnea: central apnea and obstructive apnea. In central apnea, the brain does not send the proper signals to breathe during sleep; this is a rare condition but can be treated. In obstructive apnea, which is by far the most common type, the patient tries to breathe but cannot because of tissue obstruction in the upper airway which is more pronounced when the patient lies down, or from muscle relaxation during deep sleep. This obstruction can be from excess tissue, and also from disproportionate anatomy in the upper airway.

Dr. Phil Westbrook
Sleep Medicine Specialist

Apnea means "no breath", so sleep apnea is an absence of breathing that occurs during sleep. There are two types of sleep apnea, but by far the most common is obstructive sleep apnea. This occurs when, in certain individuals, the loss of throat muscle activity in sleep allows that portion of the airway to collapse as they try to breathe in, obstructing the airway and preventing air from getting to the lungs. In adults an apnea is defined as an absence of airflow for at least 10 seconds, but in some individuals the obstruction preventing airflow can last for over a minute. Sleep apnea is also a term used to indicate not only complete cessation of all airflow, but also partial obstructions of the upper airway that interfere with getting enough oxygen in and carbon dioxide out of the body. This inadequate breathing event is called an obstructive hypopnea. In adults if the stop or inadequate breathing episodes occur more than 5 or 10 times per hour of sleep then they are said to have sleep apnea. Individuals with severe obstructive sleep apnea may have over 800 stop breathing episodes a night � they literally cannot sleep and breathe at the same time. Put another way, they can only sleep as long as they can hold their breath. Obviously you cannot stop breathing for too long or you would wake up dead. Fortunately the brain almost always picks breathing over sleeping. An obstructive apnea ends when the brain, stimulated by a combination of low blood oxygen and high blood carbon dioxide, activates the muscles responsible for holding the airway open. This often requires a brief unremembered awakening or arousal, just long enough to take a few gasping breaths before falling back asleep.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of apnea and occurs when airflow through the nose or mouth is blocked. The blockage can be caused by several things, including narrowing of the airway by excess tissue (typically as a result of obesity), enlarged tonsils or a large uvula (the small fleshy pendulum of tissue that hangs from the soft palate at the back part of the roof of the mouth).

If air cannot easily flow into or out of the nose or mouth, it's more difficult to breathe. The increased effort of breathing causes a suction force in the upper part of the airway that causes it to collapse further. This can result in heavy snoring or a pause in airflow, which creates low levels of oxygen and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood, which in turn may wake a person from sleep or cause an arousal. With each abrupt change from deep sleep to light sleep, a signal goes from the brain to the upper airway muscles to open the airway; normal breathing resumes, often with a loud snort or gasp.

While that arousal is only a brief disturbance in sleep that does not last long enough to be considered an awakening, it can still contribute to sleep disruption. Frequent arousals, although necessary for breathing to restart, prevent restorative, deep sleep. Drinking alcohol or taking sleeping pills increases the frequency and duration of breathing pauses by sedating the brain and preventing the arousal.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is an increasingly common condition where people quit breathing during sleep. A blockage of the airway causes OSA, causing the body to sense a lack of air and wake up to resume breathing.

OSA causes poor sleep quality and is often associated with daytime sleepiness, obesity and hypertension. It is formally diagnosed by a sleep study.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.