Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea
Sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing stops for more than ten seconds during sleep. Sleep apnea is a major, though often unrecognized, cause of daytime sleepiness. It can have serious negative effects on a person’s quality of life, and is thought to be considerably under diagnosed in the United States.

A sleeping person normally breathes continuously and without interruption throughout the night. A person with sleep apnea, however, has frequent episodes (up to 400-500 per night) in which he or she stops breathing.

This interruption of breathing is called “apnea.” Breathing usually stops for about 30 seconds; then the person usually startles awake with a loud snort and begins to breathe again, gradually falling back to sleep.

There are two forms of sleep apnea. In obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), breathing stops because tissue in the throat closes off the airway. In central sleep apnea, (CSA), the brain centers responsible for breathing fail to send messages to the breathing muscles. OSA is much more common than CSA.

It is thought that about 1–10% of adults are affected by OSA; only about one tenth of that number have CSA. OSA can affect people of any age and of either sex, but it is most common in middle-aged, somewhat overweight men, especially those who use alcohol.

Causes and symptoms

Obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when part of the airway is closed off (usually at the back of the throat) while a person is trying to inhale during sleep. People whose airways are slightly narrower than average are more likely to be affected by OSA. Obesity, especially obesity in the neck, can increase the risk of developing OSA, because the fat tissue tends to narrow the airway.

In some people, the airway is blocked by enlarged tonsils, an enlarged tongue, jaw deformities, or growths in the neck that compress the airway. Blocked nasal passages may also play a part in some people’s apnea.

When a person begins to inhale, expansion of the lungs lowers the air pressure inside the airway. If the muscles that keep the airway open are not working hard enough, the airway narrows and may collapse, shutting off the supply of air to the lungs.

OSA occurs during sleep because the neck muscles that keep the airway open are not as active then. Congestion in the nose can make collapse more likely, since the extra effort needed to inhale will lower the pressure in the airway even more.

Drinking alcohol or taking tranquilizers in the evening worsens this situation, because these substances cause the neck muscles to relax. These drugs also lower the “respiratory drive” in the nervous system, reducing breathing rate and strength.

People with OSA almost always snore heavily, because the same narrowing of the airway that causes snoring can also cause OSA. Snoring may actually help cause OSA as well, because the vibration of the throat tissues can cause them to swell. However, most people who snore do not go on to develop OSA.

Other risk factors for developing OSA include male sex; pregnancy; a family history of the disorder; and smoking. With regard to gender, it has been found that male sex hormones sometimes cause changes in the size or structure of the upper airway. The weight gain that accompanies pregnancy can affect a woman’s breathing patterns during sleep, particularly during the third trimester.

With regard to family history, OSA is known to run in families even though no gene or genes associated with the disorder have been identified as of 2002. Smoking increases the risk of developing OSA because it causes inflammation, swelling, and narrowing of the upper airway.

Some patients being treated for head and neck cancer develop OSA as a result of physical changes in the muscles and other tissues of the neck and throat. Doctors recommend prompt treatment of the OSA to improve the patient’s quality of life.

Central sleep apnea

In central sleep apnea, the airway remains open, but the nerve signals controlling the respiratory muscles are not regulated properly. This loss of regulation can cause wide fluctuations in the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood.

Normal activity in the body produces CO2, which is brought by the blood to the lungs for exhalation. When the blood level of CO2 rises, brain centers respond by increasing the rate of respiration, clearing the CO2.

As blood levels fall again, respiration slows down. Normally, this interaction of CO2 and breathing rate maintains the CO2 level within very narrow limits. CSA can occur when the regulation system becomes insensitive to CO2 levels, allowing wide fluctuations in both CO2 levels and breathing rates.

High CO2 levels cause very rapid breathing (hyperventilation), which then lowers CO2 so much that breathing becomes very slow or even stops. CSA occurs during sleep because when a person is awake, breathing is usually stimulated by other signals, including conscious awareness of breathing rate.

A combination of the two forms is also possible, and is called “mixed sleep apnea.” Mixed sleep apnea episodes usually begin with a reduced central respiratory drive, followed by obstruction.

OSA and CSA cause similar symptoms. The most common symptoms are:
  • daytime sleepiness
  • morning headaches
  • a feeling that sleep is not restful
  • disorientation upon waking
  • memory loss and difficulty paying attention
  • poor judgment
  • personality changes

Sleepiness is caused not only by the frequent interruption of sleep, but by the inability to enter long periods of deep sleep, during which the body performs numerous restorative functions.

OSA is one of the leading causes of daytime sleepiness, and is a major risk factor for motor vehicle accidents. Headaches and disorientation are caused by low oxygen levels during sleep, from the lack of regular breathing.

Other symptoms of sleep apnea may include sexual dysfunction, loss of concentration, memory loss, intellectual impairment, and behavioral changes including anxiety and depression.

Sleep apnea is also associated with night sweats and nocturia, or increased frequency of urination at night. Bedwetting in children is also linked to sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea can also cause serious changes in the cardiovascular system. Daytime hypertension (high blood pressure) is common.

An increase in the number of red blood cells (polycythemia) is possible, as is an enlarged left ventricle of the heart (cor pulmonale), and left ventricular failure. In some people, sleep apnea causes life-threatening changes in the rhythm of the heart, including heartbeat slowing (bradycardia), racing (tachycardia), and other types of arrhythmias.

Sudden death may occur from such arrhythmias. Patients with the Pickwickian syndrome (named after a Charles Dickens character) are obese and sleepy, with right heart failure, pulmonary hypertension, and chronic daytime low blood oxygen (hypoxemia) and increased blood CO2 (hypercapnia).


Excessive daytime sleepiness is the complaint that usually brings a person to see the doctor. A careful medical history will include questions about alcohol, tobacco, or tranquilizer use; family history; snoring (often reported by the person’s partner); and morning headaches or disorientation.

A physical examination will include examination of the mouth, nose and throat to look for narrowing or obstruction, or unusual size or shape of the tonsils or adenoids. Blood pressure is also measured. Measuring heart rate or blood levels of oxygen and CO2 during the daytime will not usually be done, since these are abnormal only at night in most patients.

In some cases the person’s dentist may suggest the diagnosis of OSA on the basis of a dental checkup or evaluation of the patient for oral surgery.

Confirmation of the diagnosis usually requires making measurements while the person sleeps. These tests are called a polysomnography study, and are conducted during an overnight stay in a specialized sleep laboratory.

Important parts of the polysomnography study include measurements of:
  • heart rate
  • airflow at the mouth and nose
  • respiratory effort
  • sleep stage (light sleep, deep sleep, dream sleep, etc.)
  • oxygen level in the blood, using a noninvasive probe (ear oximetry)

Simplified studies done overnight at home are also possible, and may be appropriate for people whose profile strongly suggests the presence of obstructive sleep apnea; that is, middle-aged, somewhat overweight men, who snore and have high blood pressure. The home-based study usually includes ear oximetry and cardiac measurements.

If these measurements support the diagnosis of OSA, initial treatment is usually suggested without polysomnography. Home-based measurements are not used to rule out OSA, however, and if the measurements do not support the OSA diagnosis, polysomnography may be needed to define the problem further.


Treatment of obstructive sleep apnea begins with reducing the use of alcohol or tranquilizers in the evening, if these have been contributing to the problem. Quitting smoking is recommended for a number of health concerns in addition to OSA.

Weight loss is also effective, but if the weight returns, as it often does, so does the apnea. Changing sleeping position may be effective. Snoring and sleep apnea are both most common when a person sleeps on his back. Turning to sleep on the side may be enough to clear up the symptoms. Raising the head of the bed may also help.

There are few reports of OSA being treated by alternative and complementary approaches. In 2002, however, some Japanese researchers reported on the case of a 44-year-old male who was successfully treated for OSA by taking a Kampo extract, or traditional Japanese herbal formulation.

Allopathic treatment

Opening of the nasal passages can provide some relief for sleep apnea sufferers. There are a variety of nasal devices such as clips, tapes, or holders which may help, though discomfort may limit their use. Nasal decongestants may be useful, but should not be taken for sleep apnea without the consent of the treating physician.

Supplemental nighttime oxygen can be useful for some people with either central and obstructive sleep apnea. Tricyclic antidepressant drugs such as protriptyline (Vivactil) may help by increasing the muscle tone of the upper airway muscles, but their side effects may severely limit their usefulness.

For moderate to severe sleep apnea, the most successful treatment is nighttime use of a ventilator, called a CPAP machine. CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) blows air into the airway continuously, preventing its collapse. CPAP requires the use of a nasal mask.

The appropriate pressure setting for the CPAP machine is determined by polysomnography in the sleep lab. Its effects are dramatic; daytime sleepiness usually disappears within one to two days after treatment begins. CPAP is used to treat both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

CPAP is tolerated well by about two-thirds of patients who try it. Bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP), is an alternative form of ventilation. With BiPAP, the ventilator reduces the air pressure when the person exhales. This form of treatment is more comfortable for some.

Another approach to treating OSA involves the use of oral appliances intended to improve breathing either by holding the tongue in place or by pushing the lower jaw forward during sleep to increase the air volume in the upper airway. The first type of oral appliance is known as a tongue retaining device or TRD.

The second type is variously called an oral protrusive device (OPD) or mandibular advancement splint (MAS), because it holds the mandible, or lower jaw, forward during sleep. These oral devices appear to work best for patients with mild-to-moderate OSA, and in some cases can postpone or prevent the need for surgery.

Their rate of patient compliance is about 50%; most patients who stop using oral appliances do so because their teeth are in poor condition. TRDs and OPDs can be fitted by dentists; however, most dentists work together with the patient’s physician following a polysomnogram rather than prescribing the device by themselves.

Surgery can be used to correct obstructions in the airway. The most common surgery is called UPPP, for uvulopalatopharynoplasty. This surgery removes tissue from the rear of the mouth and top of the throat.

The tissues removed include parts of the uvula (the flap of tissue that hangs down at the back of the mouth), the soft palate, and the pharynx. Tonsils and adenoids are usually removed as well. This operation significantly improves sleep apnea in slightly more than half of all cases.

More recently, oral surgeons have been performing region-specific surgery for OSA, which grew out of the recognition that obstructions may exist in more than one level of the patient’s upper airway. Region-specific surgery has a cure rate of over 90%, though it may involve more than one surgical operation.

A modified tracheotomy may also be performed to treat OSA. This procedure involves the surgical placement of a tiny breathing tube that fits in a 2 mm incision in the throat.

Reconstructive surgery is possible for those whose OSA is due to constriction of the airway by lower jaw deformities. Genioplasty, which is a procedure that plastic surgeons usually perform to reshape a patient’s chin to improve his or her appearance, is now being done to reshape the upper airway in patients with OSA.

Expected results

Appropriate treatment enables most people with sleep apnea to be treated successfully, although it may take some time to determine the most effective and least intrusive treatment.

In many cases consultation and cooperation between the person’s physician and dentist help in finding the best treatment option. Polysomnography testing is usually required after beginning a treatment to determine how effective it has been.


For people who snore frequently, weight control, smoking cessation, avoidance of evening alcohol or tranquilizers, and adjustment of sleeping position may help reduce the risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea.