Start Your Path To Better Ear, Nose and Throat Health Today!

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

a doctor checking his patient's throat

Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes breathing to stop and start repeatedly during sleep. There are several kinds of sleep apnea, but the most common is obstructive sleep apnea. This happens when your throat muscles relax during sleep, blocking the airway. 

Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Excessive tiredness during the day
  • Loud snoring
  • Noticing episodes of stopped breathing during sleep
  • Waking abruptly with gasping or choking
  • Waking with a dry mouth or sore throat
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Difficulty concentrating during the day
  • Mood changes, such as depression or irritability
  • High blood pressure
  • Nighttime sweating
  • Decreased libido

When to see your doctor

If you experience, or someone who shares your bed notices, one of these more serious symptoms, schedule a visit with your ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor ASAP:

  • Snoring loud enough to disturb your sleep or the sleep of others
  • Waking up gasping or choking
  • Intermittent pauses in your breathing during sleep
  • Excessive daytime drowsiness, which may be causing you to fall asleep while you’re working, watching televisions or even driving. 

Many people might not consider snoring to be a sign of anything serious, and not everyone who snores loudly has obstructive sleep apnea. 

If you do experience loud snoring, talk to your doctor, especially if the snoring is accompanied by periods of silence. Snoring is usually louder when you sleep on your back if it is caused by obstructive sleep apnea, and will be quieter when sleeping on your side. 

You should see your doctor if you are experiencing any kind of sleep problem that is leaving you feeling fatigued the next day. Chronic fatigue can be caused by sleep apnea or other disorders, like narcolepsy. 

What causes obstructive sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea happens when the muscles in the back of the throat relax too much to allow you to breathe normally. These muscles support the structures in the mouth and throat including your soft palate, the uvula, the tonsils and the tongue. 

When these muscles relax, your airway narrows or closes as you breathe in, making breathing inadequate. This can then lead to lower levels of oxygen in your blood, causing a buildup of carbon dioxide. The brain senses that your breathing is impaired and will rouse you from sleep to reopen the airway. This waking up is usually very brief, and won’t be remembered. You might awaken with shortness of breath and might make a snorting, gasping or choking sound. 

This pattern can repeat itself between five and thirty times each hour, for the whole night. These disruptions obviously impair your ability to sleep well with proper restful sleep, making you feel much more tired during the day. 

Who is at risk?

Anyone can develop obstructive sleep apnea, but there are some factors that can put you more at risk of the condition. 

While most people who experience obstructive sleep apnea are overweight, anyone can develop it. Sleep apnea commonly occurs when fat deposits near the upper airway obstruct the airway, causing pauses in breathing or cutting it off completely.

Some people naturally have a narrower airway, which can put you at risk. Your tonsils or adenoids could enlarge, causing a problem. Sleep apnea is also common in those with high blood pressure or those who experience chronic nasal congestion. Smokers are also more at risk. 

Diabetics, those with asthma, men and postmenopausal women also have a higher chance of experiencing the disorder. If you have family members with obstructive sleep apnea, you are more likely to have it yourself. 

How is obstructive sleep apnea diagnosed?

In order to diagnose you, your doctor might make an evaluation based on your symptoms, an examination and tests. You may be referred to a sleep specialist for further evaluation. 

You will have a physical examination, where your doctor will examine the back of your throat, mouth and nose for any extra tissue or other anomalies. You may have your neck, waist, circumference and your blood pressure checked. A sleep specialist may need to carry out more evaluation for a diagnosis and to plan your treatment. This might mean overnight monitoring or your breathing and other functions while you sleep. 

There are also a variety of tests that can be carried out, including polysomnography, where you are monitored overnight in a sleep center or home tests for obstructive sleep apnea. 

If you think you may be experiencing obstructive sleep apnea, it is important to speak to your doctor or an ENT specialist. To find out more about obstructive sleep apnea, call Independence Ear, Nose & Throat at 772-888-1880.