Sleep Apnea (cont.)
Siamak T. Nabili, MD, MPH
Siamak T. Nabili, MD, MPH
Dr. Nabili received his undergraduate degree from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), majoring in chemistry and biochemistry. He then completed his graduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). His graduate training included a specialized fellowship in public health where his research focused on environmental health and health-care delivery and management.
In this Article
What is obstructive sleep apnea and what causes it?
In obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), apneas have four components.
First, it is necessary to describe a "normal breath." A normal breath of air passes through the nasal passages, behind the soft palate and uvula (part of the soft palate), then past the tongue base, through the throat muscles, and between the vocal cords into the lungs. An obstruction to the flow of air at any of these levels may lead to apnea. The following are some examples:
To break it down even further:
People with obstructive sleep apnea have an airway that is more narrow than normal, usually at the base of the tongue and palate. When lying flat, the palate is above the air passage. When the pharyngeal muscles (muscles of the pharynx or throat ) relax the palate can fall backwards and this can obstruct the airway.
The genioglossus muscle is located where the base of the tongue attaches to the jawbone in front. Most people have enough space behind the tongue to take a breath without needing to pull the tongue forward. However, when obstructive sleep apnea patients are awake, this muscle needs to be active to pull the base of the tongue forward to open the airway. During sleep, most muscles including the genioglossus relax. During the stage of rapid eye movement (REM), the muscles completely relax. Relaxation of the genioglossus muscle during sleep allows the base of the tongue to fall backwards and the airway closes.
Patients with obstructive sleep apnea often don't report waking up during the night with each episode of apnea. Frequently, during the apnea the brain only awakens from a deep sleep (stages 3, 4, or REM) to a shallow level of sleep. The genioglossus muscle then contracts and pulls the tongue forward so that a breath can be taken. The patient may remain asleep, but the deep sleep that is important to be fully rested the following day is disrupted.
Reviewed by Jay W. Marks, MD on 9/25/2012
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