Obstructive Sleep Apnea Explained

What Is Sleep Apnea?

When you have this condition, your breath can become very shallow or you may even stop breathing -- briefly -- while you sleep. It can happen many times a night in some people.

Obstructive sleep apnea happens when something partly or completely blocks your upper airway during shut-eye. That makes your diaphragm and chest muscles work harder to open the obstructed airway and pull air into the lungs. Breathing usually resumes with a loud gasp, snort, or body jerk. You may not sleep well, but you probably won't be aware that this is happening.

The condition can also reduce the flow of oxygen to vital organs and cause irregular heart rhythms.


The most common obstructive sleep apnea warning signs include:

If you share a bed with someone, they'll probably notice it before you do.

Symptoms in children may not be as obvious. They may include:

  • Bedwetting
  • Choking or drooling
  • Sweating a lot at night
  • Ribcage moves inward when they exhale
  • Learning and behavior disorders
  • Problems at school
  • Sluggishness or sleepiness (often misinterpreted as laziness in the classroom)
  • Snoring
  • Teeth grinding
  • Restlessness in bed
  • Pauses or absence of breathing
  • Unusual sleeping positions, such as sleeping on the hands and knees, or with the neck hyperextended

Talk to your doctor if you notice any of these problems. There are a lot of other possible causes for these symptoms as well.


Who Gets Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

It’s more likely if you're overweight or obese, have a thick or large neck, or have smaller airways in your nose, throat, or mouth. It can also happen if you have enlarged tonsils or too much tissue at the back of the throat -- the uvula and soft palate -- that hangs down and blocks the windpipe. A larger-than-average tongue can also block the airway in many people as well as a deviated septum in the nose.

The condition is more common among men than women, and it becomes more likely as you get older. But it’s not a normal part of aging.

Other risk factors include:


Your doctor will give you a checkup and ask about your sleep. He may also want to ask people who live with you about your shut-eye habits.

You may need to spend a night in a sleep lab or have a sleep study done at your house. You’ll wear monitors to measure things such as:

  • Air flow
  • Blood oxygen levels
  • Breathing patterns
  • Electrical activity of the brain
  • Eye movements
  • Heart rate
  • Muscle activity

The study will track how many times your breathing was impaired during sleep.


The possible options include:

Weight loss, if needed. Losing even 10% of your weight can make a difference.

Avoid alcohol and sleeping pills, which make the airway more likely to collapse during sleep and lengthen the times when you’re not breathing properly.

Sleeping on your side, if you only get mild sleep apnea when you sleep on your back.

Nasal sprays, if sinus problems or nasal congestion make it harder to breathe while you sleep.

CPAP machine. This device includes a mask that you wear over your nose or mouth, or both. An air blower forces constant and continuous air through the nose or mouth. The air pressure is just enough to keep the upper airway tissues from collapsing during sleep. Other types of positive airway pressure devices are also available, including the BPAP, which has two levels of air flow that vary with breathing in and out.


Oral devices. For some people with mild sleep apnea, dental appliances or oral "mandibular advancement" devices that prevent the tongue from blocking the throat or advance the lower jaw forward can be made. These devices may help keep the airway open during sleep. A dental expert who is trained in oral health, TMJ, and dental occlusion can check on which type of device may be best for you.

Surgery is for people who have extra or misshapen tissue that blocks airflow through the nose or throat. For example, a person with a deviated nasal septum, enlarged tonsils and adenoids, or a small lower jaw that causes the throat to be too narrow might benefit from surgery. Doctors usually try other treatments first.

Types of Surgery

These include:

Upper airway stimulator. This device, called Inspire, has a small pulse generator that the surgeon places under the skin in your upper chest. A wire leading to the lung detects your natural breathing pattern. Another wire, leading up to the neck, delivers mild stimulation to nerves that control airway muscles, keeping them open.

A doctor can program the device from an external remote. Also, people who have Inspire use a remote to turn it on before bed and turn it off when they wake up in the morning.

Somnoplasty. Doctors use radiofrequency energy to tighten the soft palate at the back of the throat.

UPPP, or UP3, is a procedure that removes soft tissue in the back of the throat and palate, increasing the width of the airway at the throat opening. (UPPP stands for uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, if you were wondering.)

Mandibular/maxillary advancement surgery. The surgeon moves the jaw bone and face bones forward to make more room in the back of the throat. It’s an intricate procedure that doctors only do for people who have severe sleep apnea and problems with their head or face.

Nasal surgery. These operations correct obstructions in the nose, such as a deviated septum.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on March 4, 2018



National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "What is Sleep Apnea?;" “What Are Sleep Studies;” “Your Guide to Healthy Sleep;” and “Who Is at Risk for Sleep Apnea?”

UpToDate: “Management of Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Adults.”

MedlinePlus: "Sleep Apnea."

American Sleep Apnea Association.

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