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How to Tell Whether You've Got Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (or OSA) is a condition that causes repeated suffocation during sleep. When you sleep your whole body shuts down somewhat and your muscles are relaxed. This goes for the nasopharynx too: when lying down the pharyngeal diameter of the throat lessens, creating more resistance and thus making it harder to breathe.

To compensate for this, the in-breath automatically becomes more powerful, causing the walls of the nasopharynx to be sucked in. The walls are unable to resist, as their muscles are partly relaxed during sleep. The result is that the walls are sucked together so that the air intake is too low (hypopnea) or completely blocked (apnea), which deprives the lungs of air and the oxygen concentration in the blood stars to fall. 

This reduced concentration causes the heart to send an alarm signal to the brain, which is subsequently woken up and all the muscles in the body are stimulated, including the nasopharynx muscles that are then opened and let air through again. The apnea or hypopnea is followed by a brief waking period that the sleeper very rarely remembers. 

As soon as the blood has reached normal oxygen levels again, the alarm in the heart is shut off and the brain allows the body to fall back to sleep. The result of obstructive sleep apnea is a much worsened quality of sleep.

Why does obstructive sleep apnea occur?

Sleep apnea, as well as snoring, is often generally caused by constricted inner dimensions in the cranium. These constrictions can be hard to describe, as we cannot see them with the naked eye. It can be a matter of a short or narrow upper or lower jaw or a combination of these. 

obstructive sleep apneaOther causes can be soft tissue that takes up more space than usual, for example nasal polyps, throat polyps, enlarged tonsils, large tongue, and tongue polyps. 

Also imbalances in the nasal septum and swollen mucous membranes associated with allergies can be a contributing factor. 

During colds mucous membranes are swollen, which can trigger or aggravate snoring. While not all forms of snoring are related to sleep apnea or hypopnea, it can be one of the major signs that a person is suffering from OSA.

There are many other factors that can cause sleep apnea and/or worsen the condition. Being overweight can add extra pressure on the throat, actually causing sleep apnea or making it much more severe. Alcohol, sleep medication, and sedatives are also known to make the apneas worse and more frequent.

What are the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea?

Common symptoms of sleep apnea include irregular snoring with quiet periods of more than 10 seconds. When watching a person with sleep apnea, you will see the person fighting for air with violent breathing motions that do not get air in. Not until the apnea is stopped by disrupted sleep will the air be allowed through and cause a loud snore. 


The quiet periods of the apnea can be 10 to 50 seconds in length. The individual, as mentioned before, only remembers a fraction of the episodes; often it is the spouse that is most bothered by them, and many end up having to sleep in separate rooms. 


obstructive sleep apneaDespite not being able to remember having sleep apnea episodes, people who suffer from the disorder wake up feeling tired, no matter how long they slept for. However, there is no connection between the degree of apnea and the degree of tiredness.

A patient with sleep apnea will often sleep very restlessly, sweat excessively during sleep, and will often need to wake up to urinate one or several times a night. During the day patients complain of lethargy, morning headaches, lack of energy and irritability. 

These symptoms will be especially strong in monotonous situations; sufferers fall asleep at meetings, in the cinema, on long drives and in social situations.

What are the risks related to obstructive sleep apnea?

The effect of bad sleep on a persons’ health is immense. This is one of the reasons that untreated sleep apnea can be so damaging to overall wellbeing. Furthermore, untreated sleep apnea puts a great strain on the heart and cardiovascular health and increases the risk of high blood pressure. Long term the condition can cause increased risk of strokes and blood clots in the heart. The risks of these will be lowered with efficient treatment. Another risk connected with sleep apnea is accidents, i.e. during work or while driving.

Getting Examined for Obstructive Sleep Apnea

It is advisable to see the doctor if you snore and do not feel rested in the morning or if you get tired during the day after getting sufficient sleep.

obstructive sleep apneaHow is obstructive sleep apnea diagnosed?

 When trying to diagnose sleep apnea it is recommended that a CRM (Cardio Respiratory Monitoring) test is carried out. A CRM measures airflow through the upper airways, breathing motion of the thoracic and abdominal, oxygen saturation in the blood and position. 

It is normally necessary to spend the night at a sleep clinic to fully diagnose apnea because the sleep will need to be monitored by a professional. In this test, the number of apneas and hypopnea are counted and as well as the average length of time that each episode occurs. Furthermore, it is possible to clarify in what position they occur, i.e. on the back, on the side, and the level of oxygen deprivation, thus determining how severe the apnea is.

What are the treatment options for obstructive sleep apnea?

There are various treatments available, CPAP being the most common. CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure and is the most efficient treatment for sleep apnea. A CPAP machine is a small (practically noiseless) that blows a small positive pressure in such a way that the airways are kept open, normalizing the breathing and preventing snoring. Natural breathing will make the quality of sleep much better, and patients will experience waking up feeling rested and more energetic.

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