THE DANGERS OF OBSTRUCTIVE SLEEP APNEA
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep. The “apnea” (without breath) in sleep apnea refers to a breathing pause that lasts at least ten seconds… and often more. These pauses can last one minute. OSA occurs when there is a blockage of the upper airway and when the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open, despite efforts to breathe.
Imagine holding your breath for 10 to 60 seconds… and doing that repeatedly through the night. How much oxygen is passing to your brain, and thus to your other organs?
The combination of disturbed sleep and oxygen starvation may lead to devastating systemic damage. The list of medical conditions associated with OSA is extensive.
This depiction shows a normal and a blocked airway. Notice the large tongue on the right obstructing the air passage to the pharynx.
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THE RISK FACTORS AND HOW THEY CONTRIBUTE TO SLEEP APNEA
- Excess weight. Fat deposits around your upper airway may obstruct your breathing. However, not everyone who has sleep apnea is overweight. Thin people develop OSA, too.
- Neck circumference. People with a thicker neck may have a narrower airway.
- A narrowed airway. You may have inherited a naturally narrow throat. Or, your tonsils or adenoids may become enlarged, which can block your airway. An enlarged or inflamed uvula will block the airway.
- Being male. Men are twice as likely to have sleep apnea. However, women increase their risk if they’re overweight, and their risk also appears to rise after menopause.
- Age. Sleep apnea occurs significantly more often in adults over 60.
- Family history. If you have family members with sleep apnea, you may be at increased risk.
- Race. In people under 35 years old, blacks are more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea.
- Use of alcohol, sedatives or tranquilizers. These substances relax the muscles in your throat.
- Smoking. Smokers are three times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than are people who’ve never smoked. Smoking may increase the amount of inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway. This risk likely drops after you quit smoking.
- Nasal congestion. If you have difficulty breathing through your nose — whether it’s from an anatomical problem or allergies — you’re more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea.