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Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) Causes & Symptoms


What is sleep apnea (OSA)?

Sometimes, snoring leads to a more severe condition called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). OSA occurs when a person suffers from multiple episodes of paused breathing during sleep. Episodes last for 10 seconds or more, and result in lower amounts of oxygen in the blood. In turn, the heart must work harder and the natural sleep cycle is disrupted due to constant awakenings. Patients who suffer from OSA can experience anywhere from dozens to hundreds of episodes each night.

What causes sleep apnea?

OSA occurs when something blocks (obstructs) the airway during sleep and oxygen cannot easily flow through the nose or mouth during sleep. Common conditions that can cause OSA include:

Nasal Congestion or Obstruction

A stuffy nose or nasal obstruction can cause a narrowing of the nasal passage and play a substantial role in OSA. Additionally, growths of the tissues that line the airway can also impact a person’s ability to breathe properly. This includes enlarged turbinates, deviated septum, enlarged adenoids or nasal polyps.

Mouth Structure

The soft palate is a cluster of tissues that lines the roof of the mouth and runs all the way to the back of the throat. The uvula is attached to the soft palate, and hangs down in the back of your throat. If a soft palate is thick, long, or oversized, your airway can be narrowed. Additionally, if the uvula or tonsils are enlarged (commonly known as tonsillitis), it can also cause an obstruction, especially during sleep.

Excess Body Weight

Being overweight may affect your ability to breathe and impact your risk for developing OSA. Excessive weight around the neck or throat can narrow the airway and make it more difficult to breathe.

What are the effects of sleep apnea?

The immediate results of OSA include an inability to enter a deep sleep because throat muscles are tense throughout the night to keep airflow going to the lungs. Long-term results of OSA include:

  • Daytime fatigue
  • Increased risk of other medical conditions, including:
    • Heart attack
    • Stroke
    • Diabetes
  • Impaired job or school performance
  • Increased risk of motor vehicle accident

What are the signs of sleep apnea?

Often patients with OSA are not aware that they have a sleep disorder. Sleep apnea episodes can occur throughout the night without the patient awaking fully or being conscious of the fact that they have stopped breathing. For this reason, it is important to recognize other sleep apnea symptoms, including:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Snoring
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Restless sleep
  • High blood pressure
  • Waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
  • Morning headaches
  • Gasping or choking during sleep

Most people suffering from sleep apnea are not aware of their nightly episodes because they don’t attribute their daytime symptoms with what’s happening to them at night. Those suffering from this sleep condition are often made aware of their snoring or sleep apnea episodes at night because of the effect it can have on their bed partner.

What sleep apnea treatment options are available?

OSA is most commonly treated with a CPAP mask, which opens the airway by feeding oxygen into the airway. Other treatment options may include:

If you are suffering from OSA, the first step towards feeling better is to schedule an evaluation with an experienced ear, nose and throat doctor. Board certified physicians with New York ENT have extensive experience diagnosing and treating a wide variety of sleep disorders. Fill out the form on this page or call our office at (212) 873-6168 to schedule an appointment today.

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