What Causes Sleep Apnea?

A relatively common and serious disruptive disorder, obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing stops repeatedly for at least 10 seconds (or more) while a person in sleeping. This disorder is known to cause a decrease in oxygen in the blood and often causes sleepers to awaken briefly and repeatedly through the night.

Sleep apnea has various possible causes. With adults, obesity and excess weight are the most common causes of obstructive sleep apnea When a person is sleeping, the tongue muscles and throat are often more relaxed. In turn, this soft tissue (which is usually more pronounced in people with obesity or weight issues) can cause blockage of the airway. But there are also many other risks and factors connected to this condition for adults.

For children, obstructive sleep apnea is often caused by swollen or enlarged adenoids or tonsils, and dental issues like having a large overbite. Some of the less common causes for obstructive sleep apnea in kids include growths and/or tumors in the airway, and birth defects including Pierre-Robin Syndrome and Down Syndrome. Childhood obesity has been known to cause obstructive sleep apnea, but it is not common.

Untreated obstructive sleep apnea, regardless of age, can lead to various serious issues and complications such as cardiovascular disease and even premature death. Anyone experiencing signs and/or symptoms should seek medical evaluation as soon as possible.

Additional Risk Factors for Obstructive Sleep Apnea

  • Obesity and weight issues
  • Underlying anatomical issues (often hereditary), such as a think neck, round head, or narrow head
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Excessive and abnormal growth due to excessive production of the growth hormone acromegaly
  • Allergies
  • Deviated septum
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Use of sedatives
  • Aging

Weight Issues and Obstructive Sleep Apnea

More than half of all people with obstructive sleep apnea are overweight (and/or obese).
In adults being overweight is the biggest risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea. When comparing average weight adults to obese adults those suffering obesity are seven times more likely to develop obstructive sleep apnea. Though, after the age of 60 the impact of Body Mass Index (BMI) becomes much less of a factor for obstructive sleep apnea. And BMI is not the only obesity factor that is relevant. Neck circumference over 17 inches (which is 43 centimeters) in men and over 15 inches (which is 38 centimeters) in women can also indicate a significant risk increase for obstructive sleep apnea. Extreme obesity can make complications even more severe. Weight loss and surgery can both help lessen complications of obstructive sleep apnea.

Complications Associated with Obstructive Sleep Apnea

More and more evidence suggests that obstructive sleep apnea is associated with various conditions including stroke, heart attack, high blood pressure (hypertension), gastroesophageal reflux disease, diabetes, heart failure, hypothyroidism, abnormal heart rhythm, and nocturnal angina. Nearly half of those with sleep-apnea have hypertension. And untreated obstructive sleep apnea is known to increase risk of various heart-related illnesses, as well as death. Obstructive sleep apnea is also commonly associated with extreme daytime drowsiness, which can increase risk for both depression and motor vehicle accidents

Certain complications of obstructive sleep apnea may be related to the release of stress hormones which can increase a person’s heart rate and which can also unfortunately lead to the development of heart failure.

Medical care and treatment, which includes the control of associated risk factors, use of oral appliances or continuous positive airway pressure (also known as CPAP), as well as certain kinds of surgery, may improve signs, symptoms, and issues associated with obstructive sleep apnea.

What happens if Sleep Apnea is untreated?