In obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) throat passages become closed thus preventing normal airflows to the lungs (and brain). As the throat closes and oxygen levels decline the brain signals the throat muscles to contract and reopen the airway. Thankfully they do, letting the air rush in and usually causing a distinctive gasping sound. In some cases of obstructive sleep apnea this can happen hundred of times a night. The hallmark symptoms of OSA are excessive snoring punctuated by gasping sounds.
The constant partial wakening keeps the people with OSA from reaching the deeper, more restful stages of REM sleep. The process usually takes place below the level of awareness with OSA patients usually experiencing fatigue, the desire to sleep during the day, problems concentrating and thinking, moodiness and/or high blood pressure. Untreated sleep apnea combined with high blood pressure can lead to heart and lung damage.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea is Caused by several factors, not all of which are known. Some cases of OSA may occur because the the brain is not signaling the body to breath deeply enough. Because fatty throat deposits narrow the airway being overweight is a high risk factor for OSA. Other risk factors included large neck circumference, loud snoring, high blood pressure or a family history of sleep apnea. About twice as many men as women have OSA.
Sleep Series on Phoenix Rising
- Sleep hygiene
- Prescriptions for sleep
- Alternative therapies
- Sleep apnea
- Doing a sleep study
- Sleep resources
Treatments for Mild Sleep Apnea
- Losing Weight – Since OBS is often but not always associated with being overweight, losing weight can dramatically improve OBS in some people. Even a little weight loss can be very beneficial.
- Avoid Sleeping on Your Back – Dr. Teitelbaum recommends wrapping a ball in some cloth and then sewing it to the mid-back of your sleeping attire.
- Orthodontic Mouthpieces – that keep the lower jaw and tongue forward can help stop the throat from closing in on itself.
- Avoid Alcohol Shortly Before Going to Bed – alcohol accentuates the effects of OSA.
Treatments for Moderate to Severe Sleep Apnea
- CPAP Machines – Continuous Positive Air Pressure (CPAP) devices are the most commonly used treatment for sleep apnea. The CPAP machine contains a mask that blows air into your throat at a pressure designed to keep the throat passages open. Some side effects (stuffy nose, stomach bloating, sore eyes, headaches) can occur but many resolve with adjustments to the machine or as your tolerance to the machine increases over time.
- Surgery– surgical procedures to remove obstructions (large tonsils, adenoids and other tissues) can resolve sleep apnea for some.
(This and all sections of the Phoenix Rising website are compiled by a layman. They are not a substitute for a physician and are for informational uses only. Please discuss any treatments in these pages with your physician.)
National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.
Jacob Teitelbaum, 2007, From Fatigued to Fantastic 3rd ed., Avery Publishers.