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Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of sleep apnea. It is characterized by frequent starts and stops in breathing while asleep. This type of apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax and block the airway. These muscles help to support oral and pharyngeal structures like the tongue, uvula, soft palate, and tonsils.
When the airway is either completely or partially blocked, there is usually 10 to 20 seconds of breathing cessation, which can lower blood oxygen levels. The brain panics when this happens and rouses the body to restart breathing. Generally, this is a very brief awakening that most people do not even notice or remember. It can happen over 30 times an hour all throughout the night, which significantly disrupts restful sleep cycles.
Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea
The most obvious and common sign of this type of apnea is loud snoring.
Other signs and symptoms that may occur during sleep or in the daytime include:
- Excessive sleepiness during the day, leading to difficulty with focus and concentration
- Waking up in the middle of the night short of breath
- Breathing cessation throughout the night, which is usually observed by someone else
- Dry mouth and sore throat in the morning
- Chest pain upon waking up
- Morning headaches
- Mood instability like frequent bouts of depression, anxiety, or excessive irritability
- Insomnia, problems staying asleep, and/or restless sleep
Not everyone who snores has obstructive sleep apnea. This type of snoring is extremely loud and identifiable through the long periods of deafening silence when breathing stops.
Typically, adults and children will differ in symptoms. For example, the hallmark of OSA in adults is excessive daytime sleepiness, to the point where they may fall asleep for short periods throughout regular daily activities.
Children with OSA may suffer from hyperactivity, malnutrition, and failure to thrive, which is where their growth rates are significantly reduced.
Impaired growth can happen for one of two reasons:
The work of breathing is burning off a lot more calories.
There is so much nasal and airway obstruction that it is difficult to swallow food and drink.
Symptoms can be present for years without the person knowing they have the disorder. Many will have issues for only a short period, with symptoms disappearing after weight loss, surgery, or other lifestyle changes. Symptoms may also be the result of a respiratory infection, congestion, throat swelling, etc.
Causes of Obstructive Sleep Apnea
In children, enlarged tonsils or adenoids most often cause OSA. Surgical removal often leads to resolution of OSA symptoms. For adults, causes may vary and include:
- Obesity, which may cause increased soft tissue around the airway
- Structural deformities that obstruct the airways
- Decrease in muscle tone, which can be caused by alcohol, substance abuse, neurological disorders, or some other underlying health conditions.
Some scientific evidence suggests that snoring for years at a time can lead to the development of lesions in the throat, just as the vibrations from snoring can lead to nerve or neuron lesions all around the body.
Women are typically less likely to suffer from OSA than men, as men in middle years are more likely to have changing anatomy in their neck and soft tissues. Women could also be at decreased risk because of the higher levels of progesterone, but they are more likely to suffer symptoms during pregnancy and after menopause.
Furthermore, there seems to be a genetic component to OSA. Studies have shown that sufferers often have a positive family history. Lifestyle factors like drinking, smoking, and overeating increase the chances of developing the condition.
Visit ASA to read more about Obstructive Sleep Apnea.
Author: Rachael Herman is a content contributor for the ASA. She is a professional writer with an extensive background in medical writing, research, and language development. Her hobbies include hiking in the Rockies, fishing, and reading.
The primary goal of the American Sleep Association is to increase public awareness about the importance of sleep health and the dangers of sleep disorders. ASA was founded in 2002 by sleep professionals as a member-driven public awareness effort.