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What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome?

By K. Willis
Updated May 17, 2024
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Obstructive sleep apnea syndrome is the most frequently occurring form of sleep apnea, which is a condition in which a person periodically ceases breathing during periods of sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea syndrome involves repeated instances of airway obstruction during sleep. There are several sites at which the airway can become obstructed during sleep, and there are many contributing factors. Symptoms include excessive tiredness during waking hours and frequent instances of obstructed breathing while sleeping, and although the sufferer might be unaware of these episodes, a bed partner usually is aware.

Associated features of obstructive sleep apnea syndrome can include excessively loud snoring, irritability, depression, anxiety, lack of concentration, rapid weight gain, reduced libido and repeated nocturnal urination. One of the most common features of obstructive sleep apnea syndrome is snorting, gasping or choking, often leading to the sufferer waking up himself or herself. It should be noted that not all features are present in all cases.

During periods of obstructed sleep apnea, the airway becomes partially or mostly blocked. The obstruction can be caused by excessive tissue in the airway or an overly large tongue or tonsils, and it often includes airway muscles relaxing too much when the sufferer is asleep. Structural issues of the jaw, airway and nasal passages are contributing factors to obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. Obesity and rapid weight gain also can make a person more prone to developing sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea syndrome generally is diagnosed through an overnight test known as a polysomnogram. The test is designed to measure air flow, blood oxygen concentration, breathing patterns and eye movements. Electrical activity of the brain also is measured, along with heart rate and muscle activity. This test usually is carried out by a trained technician in a sleep lab.

It is possible to reduce the episodes of obstruction during sleep with conservative treatment. If obesity is a contributing factor, a weight loss of as little as 10 percent is likely to reduce the number of obstruction occurrences. Alcohol should be avoided, because it acts as a muscle relaxant and increases the likelihood of the airway muscles relaxing and collapsing. Altering the sleeping position from laying on the back to laying on the side or sleeping in a semi-elevated position is likely to reduce the frequency of apneic episodes.

For more severe instances of obstructive sleep apnea, the use of sleep apnea devices such as mandibular advancement devices might prove necessary. A mandibular advancement device ensures that the tongue remains depressed and prevents it from blocking the airway. This device should be used only under the direction of a healthcare professional.

A continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP) is a mechanical device commonly used in the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. A mask is worn over the nose or mouth during sleep. The mask is connected to a machine that provides continuous airflow. The machine forces air into the nose or mouth at a continuous pressure, preventing the airway from closing.

In some problematic cases, surgical procedures are used to reduce the episodes of sleep apnea. When malformed or excessive, problematic tissue is present, such as a deviated septum, proportionately small lower jaw, very large tongue or excessively large tonsils, surgery might be performed. Surgery usually is the final treatment option, considered only after conservative treatment and apnea devices and machines have made no marked improvement.

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