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You’ve probably heard of sleep apnea, the sleep disorder that affects millions of people worldwide. But did you know that there are actually several types of sleep apnea? Obstructive sleep apnea, otherwise known as OSA or OSAS (obstructive sleep apnea syndrome), is the most common version. Today, we’ll be taking a closer look at OSA to help you understand what it is, how it’s treated, and more.


What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that is characterized by obstructions in the upper airway that cause lapses in breathing during sleep. These obstructions are caused by the throat muscles becoming relaxed, causing the airway to be blocked and breath to be interrupted.

In short, OSA causes you to stop breathing suddenly while you are asleep. To compensate, your body forces you to awaken in order to re-open the airway and resume normal breathing patterns. You may fully awaken to consciousness, or you may simply be pushed out of deep REM sleep and enter a more shallow, less restful stage of sleep.

Occasional lapses in breath during sleep are not harmful, but it quickly becomes an issue for patients who frequently stop breathing. There are three classifications for sleep apnea severity – mild sleep apnea is defined as 5-15 episodes per hour, moderate is considered 15-30 per hour, and severe is anything more than 30 episodes per hour. The more the patient stops breathing at night, the worse the OSA symptoms become.


What are the Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Some obstructive sleep apnea symptoms and warning signs include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness/drowsiness
  • Noticeable interruptions in breathing during sleep
  • Abrupt awakenings
  • Headaches, particularly in the morning
  • Dry mouth/sore throat
  • Difficulty focusing
  • High blood pressure
  • Decreased libido
  • Night sweats
  • Mood swings and irritability

As you can see from the list of symptoms, OSA can have a significant effect on the patient’s well being. In addition to these symptoms, obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, if left untreated, also increases your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, heart failure, and more.


What Options are there for OSA Treatment?

While the list of symptoms is frightening, the good news is that OSA is fully treatable. There are several different treatment options, and each patient will respond differently to the various options. The most common OSA treatments include:

  • Positive airway pressure therapy using a CPAP or BiPAP machine
  • Use of an oral mouthpiece
  • Surgery of the jaw or throat

The most common obstructive sleep apnea treatment is the use of positive airway pressure therapy, typically with the help of a CPAP device. CPAP machines are used nightly by sleep apnea patients, helping to keep their airways open and prevent lapses in breathing. For more information, see our what is CPAP guide. Some patients respond better to BiPAP treatment, a similar form of positive airway pressure therapy.

Another treatment for OSA that some patients respond well to is the use of an oral mouthpiece. These devices are custom made by dental professionals, and are designed to push your jaw forward and/or re-position your tongue in order to keep your airway open.

In some cases, surgery might be recommended. There are several types of surgical procedures that can improve sleep apnea symptoms, but the efficacy of these procedures is highly variable depending on the individual patient.


How Can I Learn More?

This guide is intended as an introduction to OSA. If you are concerned that you or a family member might be suffering from OSA, the next step is to speak with your doctor. From there, you will likely be instructed to take a home sleep study to determine if you have any sort of sleep disorder, including OSA. If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, your doctor will recommend treatment options such as CPAP or BiPAP therapy, or CPAP alternatives.

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