What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 26 February 2019
  • Copyright Protected:
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Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which the airway closes during sleep, obstructing someone's breathing. This condition can be life threatening if it is not treated. It occurs in a wide variety of people, most commonly in obese older men, and it can sometimes take time to diagnose. Patients with sleep disorders are more likely to get appropriate treatment if they visit a sleep lab for diagnosis and treatment, but this will only happen when a patient knows that he or she has a sleep disorder.

In some people, obstructive sleep apnea is temporary, caused by something which is temporarily narrowing the airway, such as a cold. In these individuals, the episodes of apnea may resolve on their own, without any medical intervention necessary, or a doctor may be able to prescribe a treatment to help the patient recover more quickly. In other patients, obstructive sleep apnea is chronic and it will not resolve until it is treated.

People with this condition often feel fatigued during the day. They may be restless, unable to concentrate, or depressed. Morning headaches can occur, along with a decrease in sex drive. Because the symptoms can be vague and they may come on slowly, a patient may not seek medical treatment right away. When the patient reaches a doctor, the doctor may not immediately connect the symptoms with sleep apnea, as the patient is usually unaware that he or she is having difficulty sleeping.


Often, the input of a sleeping partner can hasten the diagnosis, as the partner may notice difficulty sleeping or periods of apnea. Often, the patient is unaware that he or she is experiencing insomnia, which is why partners should mention things they notice during sleep. Patients with suspected obstructive sleep apnea may be asked to spend a night in the sleep lab so that they can be monitored, and so that an appropriate diagnosis can be reached.

In patients with a mild form of obstructive sleep apnea, the condition can sometimes be managed with lifestyle changes. Changing position for sleep or using supportive pillows can help, as can avoiding certain medications and foods close to bedtime. In other cases, it may be necessary for more aggressive intervention, which can include surgery to enlarge the airway, or the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which blows air while the patient sleeps to ensure that apnea does not occur.



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