Kim Richard Jones, M.D., Ph.D.
Adult and Pediatric Otolaryngology
Kathy Yu, M.D., M.P.H.
Adult and Pediatric Otolaryngology
Erin Blackburn, Au.D./CCC-A/F-AAA
Carolina ENT Associates 55 Vilcom Center Drive, Suite 140
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
phone: 919.942.7278
fax: 919.942.9029
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Sleep Apnea

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Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a complex subject that whole books have been written about. Thus, what follows is a brief description of OSA and hopefully some direction on whether you should see a doctor for it or not.


What Is OSA?

“Apnea” means to stop breathing, and can be either central (the part of your brain that controls breathing isn’t working properly) or obstructive (you’re trying to take a breath, but your airway is blocked). The majority of apneas are obstructive and occur at night while we’re asleep. There are two main reasons for this: first, when you lay your head down, the soft palate and the uvula (the thing that hangs down in the back of your throat) tend to fall backwards and block your airway. The same thing happens to the back of your tongue. The second reason has to do with sleep: ordinarily there is some baseline muscle tone that keeps the palate and tongue from falling backwards. However, when we’re in deep sleep, this muscle tone is relaxed, so that if these structures are going to fall back, this is when it will occur. This probably occurs to some degree in almost everyone, but in general, someone is said to have significant sleep apnea if they have more than five episodes of apnea per hour that are at least 10 seconds long.

Symptoms of OSA

The most common symptom of OSA is the feeling that you’re not getting a good night’s sleep, even if you feel you’re sleeping through the night. Usually accompanying this is what we call “daytime somnolence”, or falling asleep during the day. Heavy snoring may or may not indicate that you have OSA, although it is somewhat more common in people who snore. OSA is also more common in people who are overweight and in males more than females.


How Do I Find Out If I Have OSA?

The first step is to see your family doctor and discuss your concerns with him/her. Before seeing them, one thing you can do is have your sleep partner observe your sleep patterns and time any apneic spells you may have. Your sleep partner may also want to accompany you to the doctor. Unfortunately, a number of studies have shown that we are not very good at diagnosing OSA on the basis of patient history or even an exam of your nose, mouth, and throat. Thus, something called a “sleep study” will probably be neccessary if your doctor thinks you may have OSA. This is usually done at a local hospital and requires an overnight stay.


Treatment of OSA

There is no medicine that cures or even helps OSA. Since OSA is more common in obese people, the best initial treatment is a weight-loss program if you are overweight. Other treatments are Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) or Biphasic Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP), both of which involve the use of breathing masks that you wear at night, and Uvulopalatalpharyngoplasy (UPPP), a surgical procedure in which your uvula, part of your soft palate, and your tonsils are removed. The advantage of CPAP or BiPAP is that they are >90% effective in curing OSA. The disadvantage is that many patients have trouble tolerating the breathing mask every night. The advantage of UPPP is that if it works, you are presumably cured, at least as long as you don’t put on any more weight. The disadvantage is that it only works in 55%-60% of patients, and right now we can’t predict whom it’s going to work on and who not.

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