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Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team

Updated on

What is obstructive sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a condition in which relaxation of the throat muscles cause blockage of the airways while sleeping. This causes people to have interrupted sleep because they have difficulty breathing. This condition tends to affect adults between the ages of 30 or 60. A major cause of this condition is obesity. People with obstructive sleep apnea often snore loudly while sleeping, and find that they feel unusually tired or even sleepy during the day. The diagnosis can be confirmed by undergoing a sleep study, which monitors for signs of breathing problems while sleeping. The treatment of obstructive sleep apnea depends on the severity of symptoms, and lifestyle changes can be very effective to reduce or manage symptoms. With active management, many people see an improvement in their symptoms.


Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when relaxed muscles during sleep cause the airways to become blocked (obstructed). This causes the person to stop breathing (apnea). It is a fairly common condition. Obstructive sleep apnea most commonly affects people between 30 and 60 years old. It affects men more often than women. Risk factors include obesity, smoking, alcohol, having a large neck or a condition which causes a blocked nose, such as nasal polyps or a deviated septum.


The most common symptom is loud snoring with labored and interrupted breathing while sleeping. During these episodes, people may appear to wake up a little bit, and begin to breath again. This interrupted sleep may cause daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, headaches and irritability. In children, the symptoms may be less obvious, but may include learning and behavior problems.


The diagnosis is often based on the symptoms, physical examination and, if possible, a description of these episodes from someone who has watched the affected person sleep. To confirm the diagnosis, sleep will be observed in a clinic, and monitored for the signs of sleep apnea. This examination is called polysomnography or a sleep study. The test includes monitoring brain waves, movements of chest and abdomen, the airflow through mouth and nose, blood oxygen level and heart activity.


Treatment for this condition involves lifestyle changes and devices which help to keep the airways open. People with obstructive sleep apnea can improve their symptoms by losing weight, reducing their use of cigarettes and alcohol, by taking regular exercise and avoiding sleeping on the back. In some cases an oral device or mouthpiece can help to keep the throat open. In more severe cases, a machine that delivers air through the nose and mouth can help to prevent the airways from becoming blocked. Surgery is usually considered only if other treatments failed.


Maintaining a healthy weight, taking regular exercise, reducing the use of cigarettes and alcohol, and sleeping not on the back can help prevent the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea.

Other names for obstructive sleep apnea

  • OSA

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