What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common case of sleep apnea, accounting for approximately 84% of cases. It is a serious sleeping disorder which can go undiagnosed for prolonged periods of time, as it occurs when people are “asleep”. For a person that breathes normally when they sleep, the airway is open and oxygen can flow freely into their lungs.

For a person with obstructive sleep apnea, the airway is narrowed or closed, usually for ten seconds or more. This means that air cannot easily reach the lungs, causing low oxygen levels. It is usually a combination of a naturally narrow airway and excessive relaxation of the muscles around the tongue and throat.

People who have obstructive sleep apnea usually feel tired during the day because their body cannot go through the normal sleeping cycles that it should. This is because the brain will send signals to abruptly wake the person up so that they can resume normal breathing. A person with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome can wake up as often as thirty times per hour.

Reasons You Might Get Obstructive Sleep Apnea

  • Being overweight – This significantly increases the risk of a person developing obstructive sleep apnea, because an overweight person has extra fatty tissue around the airway, making it more likely to close during sleep. However, if someone is overweight they are not guaranteed to get obstructive sleep apnea syndrome.
  • Lying on your back whilst sleeping – if your airway is susceptible to closing while you are asleep, lying in this position makes it more likely to close.
  • Having a large neck (collar size) – A large neck is usually a sign that a person is overweight and hence has a narrower airway which is already decreasing the body’s oxygen intake.
  • Large tonsils or adenoids – Large tonsils or adenoids can block the airway and restrict breathing.
  • A large tongue – These can easily block the airway of a person, particularly if the person is asleep and lying on their back
  • A naturally narrow airway – It is easier have restricted breathing while sleeping if the airway is naturally narrow.
  • Age – As people get older, the likelihood of getting sleep apnea increases, partially because they naturally lose muscle mass, and the soft tissue round the neck is surrounded by less muscle.
  • Diabetes – Obstructive Sleeping Apnea and diabetes are interlinked, it is unclear whether diabetes causes OSA, or vice versa, but there is a clear link between them.
  • Hypertension – Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome and Hypertension are also interlinked. This because the heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body when someone is lying down, and with reduced oxygen intake it has to work even harder still, causing high blood pressure.
  • Males – Twice as many males as females are diagnosed with OSA. This is thought to be due to their thicker necks and comparatively narrower airways.
  • Smoking – Smoking not only damages and inflames the lungs, but it also damages and inflames the tissue round the throat. Inflamed lungs have to work harder to keep oxygen levels high in the blood. Additionally, inflamed tissue around the throat area makes it more likely for the soft tissue to collapse and restrict breathing.
  • Use of sedatives or alcohol – Sedatives and alcohol actually cause the tissue around the throat to become more relaxed, hence making OSA more likely.
  • Chronic Nasal Congestion – This causes less air to be able to flow freely through the nasal passages, which may help to keep the airway open.

There are four different types of treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, including lifestyle changes, mouthpieces, using machines specially designed to relieve sleep apnea, and in severe cases, surgery under general anesthetic.