Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) (or apnea) is the most common type of sleep apnea and is caused by complete or partial obstructions of the upper airway.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Loud, constant snoring can indicate a potentially life-threatening disorder called sleep apnea. The word “apnea” is derived from Greek to mean “without breath.” An estimated 5 in 100 people, typically overweight middle-aged men, suffer from sleep apnea. A person with sleep apnea stops breathing repeatedly while sleeping, anywhere from 10 seconds to 3 minutes.

Although an individual may not recall waking up, sleep is disrupted temporarily. As a result, sleep deprivation and excessive daytime sleepiness occur. If left untreated, sleep apnea can trigger high blood pressure and dangerous heart problems.

Sleep apnea can also occur in children and, in some cases, has been linked to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). In older children, sleep apnea occurs in those children who are overweight or who have unusually large tonsils and adenoids. Children with sleep apnea may snore, squeak, and thrash while sleeping. During the day, a child who suffers from sleep apnea will be sluggish or termed “lazy.” Since snoring is not normal for any child, parents should report this to their physician.

There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive, central, and mixed. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common and severe form. This type of apnea occurs when the airway closes and remains obstructed, resulting in blocked airflow. As pressure to breathe increases, the diaphragm and chest muscles work harder. Blood pressure rises and the heart can beat irregularly or even pause for several seconds.

Every time breathing stops, the level of oxygen in the blood falls and the heart must pump harder. Every time there is an obstruction, the person must awaken momentarily to resume breathing. Sleep is temporarily interrupted, activating the throat muscles to open the airway.

Physical abnormalities are usually the cause of OSA. Excessive pharyngeal tissue, an overly large tongue, a congenitally small airway, or fatty deposits are often found to be the reason. Corrective surgery is a common solution to eliminating obstructive sleep apnea.

In central sleep apnea, the brain actually fails to signal the muscles to breathe. The airway is clear, but the diaphragm and chest muscles stop working. Eventually the decreased level of oxygen in the blood signals the brain to awaken the sleeper to restart breathing. This type of apnea becomes more common with age and is associated with heart disease or a neurological disorder.

Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of central and obstructive sleep apnea. This disorder initially occurs as central sleep apnea; where there is no brain signal to breathe. When the diaphragm suddenly begins moving, the airway is blocked by an obstruction (obstructive sleep apnea). It is not uncommon for a sleep disorder specialist to see all three types of apnea occur in one night.

What Is Snoring?

Snoring is a noise produced by a sleeping individual in which the soft palate and the uvula (the skin tissue that hangs down in the back of the throat) vibrate during breathing. It is a sign that the breathing airway is not completely open. The unpleasant and often annoying sound associated with snoring comes from efforts to force air through the narrowed passageway.

Primary snoring (snoring not caused by apnea) poses no known serious consequences, is not life threatening, and does not cause chronic fatigue in the sleeper. Snoring can, however, cause fatigue and extreme annoyance in other household members, as well as the isolation of a bed partner. It is estimated that as many as 40 percent of adults snore. The majority of snorers are men.