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Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): Causes & Treatments


Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the throat relax and block the airway, causing interruptions in breathing during sleep. This can lead to a range of symptoms that affect your daily functioning and overall well-being.

In this article, we will explore the common causes of OSA, including excess weight, narrow airways, and certain medical conditions. We will also discuss the various treatment options available, such as positive airway pressure devices, oral appliances, and surgery.

Understanding the causes and treatment of obstructive sleep apnea can help you take proactive steps towards managing this condition and improving your quality of life. So, let’s dive into the details and explore the world of sleep apnea together.

Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that can have a significant impact on your daily life. Recognizing the symptoms is crucial for early diagnosis and effective treatment. Here are some common symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea:

  1. Excessive Daytime Sleepiness: Feeling excessively tired or fatigued throughout the day, even after a full night’s sleep.
  2. Loud Snoring: Snoring that is loud, disruptive, and can be heard throughout the night.
  3. Observed Episodes of Stopped Breathing During Sleep: Your bed partner may notice moments when you stop breathing for a brief period during sleep.
  4. Waking During the Night Gasping or Choking: Awakening abruptly due to choking or gasping for air during sleep.
  5. Morning Headaches: Waking up with headaches, which may be caused by the interrupted breathing during the night.
  6. Trouble Focusing During the Day: Difficulty concentrating, reduced alertness, and problems with memory or attention span.
  7. Mood Changes: Changes in mood, such as irritability, depression, or anxiety.
  8. High Blood Pressure: Obstructive sleep apnea has been linked to increased blood pressure levels.
  9. Decreased Interest in Sex: Reduced libido and sexual dysfunction may be a result of untreated sleep apnea.

If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to consult a healthcare professional for further evaluation. Untreated obstructive sleep apnea can have serious consequences on your overall health and quality of life.

Diagnosis & Treatment of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

A sleep study is necessary to accurately assess breathing patterns during sleep when diagnosing obstructive sleep apnea. You can choose to do this either in a sleep lab or with a home sleep test. During a sleep study, researchers measure oxygen levels, heart rate, and brain activity. These tests play a crucial role in assessing the severity of sleep apnea and guiding the most suitable treatment.

Once diagnosed, a combination of lifestyle changes and medical interventions can effectively manage obstructive sleep apnea. Lifestyle changes play a crucial role in improving sleep quality and reducing symptoms. For individuals with excess weight, weight loss can significantly improve sleep apnea. Additionally, positional therapy, such as avoiding sleeping on the back, can help maintain an open airway during sleep.

Medical interventions for sleep apnea include the use of positive airway pressure (PAP) devices, oral appliances, nerve stimulators, and surgery. Positive airway pressure devices, like continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, deliver a constant flow of air to keep the airway open. Oral appliances, typically custom-made by dentists, help reposition the jaw or tongue to prevent airway blockage. Nerve stimulators are implantable devices that modulate the airway muscles to maintain proper breathing. In more severe cases, surgery may be recommended to remove excess tissue or correct structural abnormalities.

Risk Factors and Complications of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea can be influenced by various risk factors that increase a person’s susceptibility to developing this sleep disorder. Understanding these risk factors is crucial for identifying individuals who may be at higher risk and implementing appropriate preventive measures. Additionally, untreated sleep apnea can lead to a range of complications that can significantly impact an individual’s health and quality of life.

Risk Factors

Several factors contribute to the development of obstructive sleep apnea:

  • Excess weight: Being overweight or obese increases the risk of developing sleep apnea due to the additional soft tissue in the throat that can obstruct the airway.
  • Older age: Sleep apnea becomes more common with age, especially after the age of 40.
  • Narrowed airway: Individuals with naturally narrow airways are more susceptible to experiencing breathing difficulties during sleep.
  • High blood pressure: Hypertension is closely associated with sleep apnea, and the two conditions often coexist.
  • Chronic nasal congestion: Conditions that cause nasal congestion, like allergies or sinus problems, can contribute to the development of sleep apnea.
  • Smoking: Smoking irritates and inflames the airways, increasing the risk of airway collapse during sleep.
  • Diabetes: Type 2 diabetes and obstructive sleep apnea have a bidirectional relationship, often co-occurring.
  • Male sex: Men are more likely to develop sleep apnea compared to women.
  • Family history of sleep apnea: Individuals with a family history of sleep apnea have a higher risk of developing the condition themselves.
  • Asthma: Asthma and sleep apnea are interconnected, with sleep apnea exacerbating asthma symptoms and vice versa.


Untreated or poorly managed sleep apnea can lead to various complications:

  • Excessive daytime fatigue: Sleep apnea disrupts the quality of sleep, leading to persistent tiredness and difficulties staying awake during the day.
  • Cardiovascular problems: Sleep apnea increases the risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and arrhythmias.
  • Complications with medications and surgery: Individuals with sleep apnea may experience challenges with the administration of anesthesia and recovery from surgery.
  • Eye problems: Sleep apnea has been linked to various eye conditions, including glaucoma, dry eyes, and optic neuropathy.
  • Sleep-deprived partners: Loud snoring and interruptions in breathing can significantly impact the quality of sleep for partners, leading to relationship strain and sleep disturbances.
  • Memory problems: Sleep apnea has been associated with memory deficits, decreased cognitive function, and an increased risk of developing dementia.
  • Morning headaches: Frequent awakening during the night due to breathing difficulties can result in morning headaches.
  • Mood swings: Sleep apnea can contribute to mood changes, irritability, and an increased risk of developing depression or anxiety disorders.
  • Increased risk for severe COVID-19: Recent studies indicate that individuals with sleep apnea may be at a higher risk of severe complications if they contract COVID-19.

In order to mitigate the risk factors associated with obstructive sleep apnea and prevent potential complications, it is crucial to seek professional medical advice for accurate diagnosis, appropriate treatment, and ongoing management.

Conservative Treatments for Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Conservative treatments for obstructive sleep apnea focus on lifestyle changes that can improve symptoms and reduce the severity of OSA. These treatments may be effective in milder cases of OSA or as adjuncts to other treatment modalities.

Weight loss is one of the most important conservative treatments for sleep apnea, especially for individuals who are overweight or obese. Losing weight can help reduce the amount of fat around the throat that can obstruct the airway during sleep. Studies have shown that even a modest weight loss of 5-10% can significantly improve sleep apnea symptoms.

Positional therapy is another conservative treatment option for OSA. Sleeping on the back (supine position) can worsen sleep apnea symptoms as gravity pulls the relaxed throat muscles and tongue towards the back of the throat, leading to airway blockage. Using positional therapy techniques, such as wearing a specialized device or placing pillows strategically, can help promote side sleeping and reduce apnea episodes.

Nasal sprays or adhesive strips can also be used as adjunct treatments for OSA. These can help improve nasal breathing and reduce nasal congestion, which can contribute to sleep apnea episodes.

To effectively manage sleep apnea through conservative treatments, it is important to work closely with a healthcare professional who specializes in sleep medicine. They can provide guidance on the most appropriate treatment options based on individual needs and provide support throughout the treatment process.

Medical Treatments for Obstructive Sleep Apnea

When it comes to managing obstructive sleep apnea, there are several medical treatments available that can help improve your sleep quality and overall health. These treatment options include positive airway pressure (PAP) devices, oral appliances, and surgery.

Sleep apnea is often treated with prescribed positive airway pressure devices, like continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines. These devices deliver pressurized air through a mask, keeping the airway open during sleep and preventing breathing interruptions. CPAP therapy has been proven effective in reducing daytime sleepiness, improving sleep quality, and alleviating symptoms.

Dentists custom-make oral appliances, also called mandibular advancement devices. These appliances help reposition the lower jaw and tongue, keeping the airway open and reducing snoring and breathing disruptions. They are a popular alternative to CPAP machines, especially for individuals with mild to moderate sleep apnea or those who have difficulty tolerating CPAP therapy.

Surgery may be considered as a treatment option for obstructive sleep apnea in certain cases. The goal of surgical procedures is to eliminate excess tissue or address structural abnormalities in the throat or nasal passages that cause blockage in the airway. Doctors typically recommend surgery for individuals with severe sleep apnea or when alternative treatments have proven ineffective. It can effectively address specific anatomical factors contributing to the condition.