What are the Causes of Sleep Apnea?

The following are a few of the causes and risk factors of sleep apnea. All of which we take into consideration when examining our patients.

Obesity or excessive weight gain: Fatty cells in the throat tissue narrow and block the airway when the muscles are relaxed. A large neck or collar size is associated with sleep apnea, whether or not the person is obese. Note that almost half of people with sleep apnea are not obese.

Age: Aging is usually accompanied by a loss of muscle mass and tone. Among these muscles that become more lax are those near the windpipe. With age, the tongue more easily falls back during sleep and blocks the airway, and the soft palate becomes looser and can impede the free flow of air. Sleep apnea very commonly appears in people who are in their late 40s or 50s.

Gender: Men are more likely to experience sleep apnea because they have narrower airways than do women. However, sleep apnea may be under diagnosed in women.

Irregular sleep hours, particularly a difference between work days and non-work days, can throw off your sleep cycles. Stage 1 sleep (when you first fall asleep) and REM sleep (when dreaming is prevalent) are extremely responsive to disruption. Unstable breathing during those parts of the sleep cycle can be the result. Chronic sleep disturbances, such as a snoring bed partner, a new baby, aggravation from the day’s events, not following a natural preference to sleep during nonconventional hours, or overuse of caffeinated products can all disrupt important Stage 1 and REM sleep. This can cause sleep apnea.

High blood pressure is another risk factor for sleep apnea.

Anatomic abnormalities or facial deformities, such as nasal obstruction, an enlarged tongue, a narrow airway, a receding chin, a small jaw, tissues blocking the airway, a deviated septum, polyps, or certain palate and jaw shapes, can cause sleep apnea.

Snoring itself is not only a result of sleep apnea, but also a cause. The repeated vibrations of the soft palate during snoring can cause the soft palate to lengthen, which can obstruct the airway.

Enlarged tonsils or adenoids often cause Obstructive Sleep Apnea in children.

A family history of Obstructive Sleep Apnea: No specific genetic marker has been discovered, but OSA seems to run in families. This may be a result of facial and neck characteristics or anatomic abnormalities that are passed along to succeeding generations.

Immune-system abnormalities may cause sleep apnea. High levels of some immune factors are related to fatigue, breathing problems, obesity, and pumping problems in the heart.

Use of alcohol and sedatives before bedtime can relax the musculature in the upper airway, which obstructs breathing.

Smoking causes inflammation and swelling of the upper airway, which restricts the flow of air. A history of smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke is also a risk factor for sleep apnea.

Hypothyroidism, acromegaly, amyloidosis, vocal cord paralysis, post-polio syndrome, neuromuscular disorders, Marfan's syndrome, and Down’s syndrome all can contribute to obstructed breathing, and therefore to sleep apnea.

Nasal congestion, nasal blockages, and nasal irritants such as household dust and dander can inhibit breathing through the nose and force breathing through the throat, which may also be blocked.

Severe heartburn or acid reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD) is another cause of sleep apnea.

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