What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)?

Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep. The "apnea" in sleep apnea refers to a breathing pause that lasts at least ten seconds.

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), the most common form, occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open, despite efforts to breathe.
  • Central sleep apnea, another form, occurs whten the brain fails to properly control breathing during sleep.

OSA can cause fragmented sleep and low blood oxygen levels. The combination of disturbed sleep and oxygen starvation from Sleep Apnea may lead to hypertension, heart disease and mood and memory problems. OSA increases the risk of automobile crashes and can be life-threatening.

More than 18 million American adults have OSA that occurs in all age groups and sexes.  Factors that increase the risk of OSA include:

  • Having a small upper airway (or large tongue, tonsils or uvula),
  • Being overweight
  • Having a recessed chin, small jaw or a large overbite
  • A large neck size (17 inches or greater in a man, or 16 inches or greater in a woman)
  • Ssmoking and alcohol use
  • Being age 40 or older
  • Ethnicity (African-Americans, Pacific-Islanders and Hispanics).

OSA seems to run in some families, suggesting a possible genetic basis.

Click Here to Take the OSA Assessment


Chronic snoring is a strong indicator of OSA. People with OSA tend to be sleep deprived and hence may suffer from:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Learning and memory difficulties
  • Falling asleep while at work, on the phone, or driving.

Left untreated symptoms of OSA can lead to:

  • Disturbed sleep
  • Excessive sleepiness during the day
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart attack
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Cardiac arrhythmia
  • Stroke
  • Depression.


If you suspect you may have sleep apnea, the first thing to do is see your doctor. Bring with you a record of your sleep, fatigue levels throughout the day, and any other symptoms you might be having. Ask your bed partner if he or she notices that you snore heavily, choke, gasp, or stop breathing during sleep. Be sure to take an updated list of medications, including over the counter medications, with you any time you visit a doctor for the first time. You may want to call your medical insurance provider to find out if a referral is needed for a visit to a sleep center.

The treatment of choice for obstructive sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP). CPAP is a mask that fits over the nose and/or mouth, and gently blows air into the airway to help keep it open during sleep. This method of treatment is highly effective. Using the CPAP as recommended by your doctor is very important.

Second-line methods of treating sleep apnea include dental appliances, which reposition the lower jaw and tongue, and upper airway surgery to remove tissue in the airway. In general, these approaches are most helpful for mild disease or heavy snoring. This is a very effective option for the majority of patients (25-50%) who do not tolerate the CPAP device. Lifestyle changes are effective ways of mitigating symptoms of sleep apnea.


One of the most common methods used to diagnose sleep apnea is a sleep study, which may require an overnight stay at a sleep center. The sleep study monitors a variety of functions during sleep including sleep state, eye movement, muscle activity, heart rate, respiratory effort, airflow, and blood oxygen levels. This test is used both to diagnose sleep apnea and to determine its severity. Sometimes, treatment can be started during the first night in the sleep center.

Here are some tips that may help reduce apnea severity:

* Lose weight. If you are overweight, this is the most important action you can take to cure your sleep apnea (CPAP only treats it; weight loss can cure it in the overweight person).

* Avoid alcohol; it causes frequent nighttime awakenings, and makes the upper airway breathing muscles relax.

* Quit smoking. Cigarette smoking worsens swelling in the upper airway, making apnea (and snoring) worse.

* Some patients with mild sleep apnea or heavy snoring have fewer breathing problems when they are lying on their sides instead of their backs.

Get Connected

Follow the AADSM blog (http://aadsm. to touch base with other sleep apnea patients and learn about the latest research in oral appliance therapy.

Untreated OSA increases your risk for:

Excessive daytime sleepiness . Driving and work-related accidents . High blood pressure . Heart disease . Stroke . Diabetes . Obesity . Depression . Memory loss . Morning headaches . Irritability . Decreased sex drive . Impaired concentration.

Click Here to Take the OSA Assessment