What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Published on: February 13, 2022 | Reading time: 🕐 3m

Picture of someone sleeping, with an illustration of breathing

Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA for short, is a common sleep disorder characterized by interruptions of breathing during sleep (called apneas). Apneas happen when the soft tissue in the back of the throat relaxes and blocks the airway. 

When the airway is blocked (either partially or completely), breathing may stop for 10 to 20 seconds. This can lower blood oxygen levels, causing the heart and brain to react. Generally, a person’s heart rate increases in an attempt to circulate more oxygen in the body. The brain experiences an arousal or brief awakening, allowing the airway to reopen. The awakening can be so brief that many people are not aware of it. This pattern of apneas and awakenings can happen dozens or even hundreds of times per night, leading to significant sleep disruption.

OSA is associated with several signs or symptoms, with the most obvious being the stoppage of breathing during the night or loud snoring (often reported by a bed partner). Other common signs include excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue, waking up in the middle of the night short of breath or choking, dry mouth or sore throat in the morning, waking up with chest pain, mood changes, reduced libido, morning headaches, and other physical effects (elevated blood pressure, nighttime sweating, weight gain). 

If you show signs of OSA, the first step is to speak with your family physician or a licensed medical provider for further assessment and a discussion of treatment options. Untreated OSA can lead to serious long-term effects on your health and well-being, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, memory problems, and accidents. 

The most appropriate treatment for OSA will depend on the individual and the severity of the symptoms. For some people, a continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP machine), which keeps the airway open and prevents apneas and snoring, is best. For others, lifestyle changes such as losing weight, cutting back on alcohol and smoking, or sleeping on one’s side may be enough to improve OSA. 

If you are also experiencing insomnia, keep in mind that OSA may be the cause of your insomnia or may be worsening those symptoms. Many people with both disorders find that once OSA is well-managed, insomnia is also resolved. Because of this, it is very important to speak with a medical professional about your OSA. If you continue to experience insomnia after your OSA is well-managed, we welcome you to try HALEO’s insomnia program, conveniently offered through our mobile app.  Click here to learn more about chronic insomnia and its recommended treatment. 

M126 - More Articles