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Causes of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is a common and serious disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops for 10 seconds or more during sleep. The disorder results in decreased oxygen in the blood and can briefly awaken sleepers throughout the night. Sleep apnea has many different possible causes.

In adults, the most common cause of obstructive sleep apnea is excess weight and obesity, which is associated with soft tissue of the mouth and throat. During sleep, when throat and tongue muscles are more relaxed, this soft tissue can cause the airway to become blocked. But many other factors also are associated with the condition in adults.

In children, causes of obstructive sleep apnea often include enlarged tonsils or adenoids and dental conditions such as a large overbite. Less common causes include a tumor or growth in the airway, and birth defects such as Down syndrome and Pierre-Robin syndrome. Down Syndrome causes enlargement of the tongue, adenoids and tonsils and there is decreased muscle tone in the upper airway.  Pierre-Robin syndrome actually has a small lower jaw and the tongue tends to ball up and fall to the back of the throat.  Although childhood obesity may cause obstructive sleep apnea, it's much less commonly associated with the condition than adult obesity.

Regardless of age, untreated obstructive sleep apnea can lead to serious complications, including cardiovascular disease, accidents, and premature death. So it's important that anyone with signs and symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea -- especially loud snoring and repeated nighttime awakenings followed by excessive daytime sleepiness -- receive appropriate medical evaluation.

Other Risk Factors for Obstructive Sleep Apnea

In addition to obesity, other anatomical features associated with obstructive sleep apnea -- many of them hereditary -- include a narrow throat, thick neck, and round head. Contributing factors may include hypothyroidism, excessive and abnormal growth due to excessive production of growth hormone (acromegaly), and allergies and other medical conditions such as a deviated septum that cause congestion in the upper airways.

In adults, smoking, excessive alcohol use, and/or the use of sedatives is often associated with obstructive sleep apnea.

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