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If you have obstructive sleep apnea, your breathing pauses for brief periods while you're asleep. Normally when you breathe in, air flows in through your mouth and nose and down your throat, also called the pharynx. Air then slows down your windpipe, or trachea, spreading through a tree-like structure of smaller tubes into your lungs.
Each time you breathe in, negative suction pressure pulls the soft tissues in your mouth and pharynx inward. The muscles in your pharynx respond by pulling the soft tissues outward again, which keeps your airway open.
When you sleep, it's normal for the muscles in your mouth, tongue, and pharynx to relax slightly, but not enough to block your airway. If you have obstructive sleep apnea, the muscles of your mouth and pharynx may relax too much. Your tongue drops onto the soft tissue in the roof of your mouth, pressing it against the back of your throat. This completely blocks the flow of air into your lungs. The lack of oxygen in your lungs wakes you up. You may gasp for air to reestablish air flow before falling asleep again.
The cycle of apnea and waking up may happen many times at night, preventing restful sleep. Factors that may contribute to obstructive sleep apnea include obesity, because more fat may be present in the walls of the pharynx, a small or receding jaw with a narrowed airway, loss of muscle tone in your pharynx due to aging, and swollen tonsils.
Common symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea are snoring, morning headaches, chronic daytime sleepiness, fatigue, irritability, and impaired concentration. Left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea may lead to complications, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, irregular heart beats, called arrhythmias, stroke, and diabetes.
Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes to treat obstructive sleep apnea, including losing weight, sleeping on your side, not smoking, and avoiding substances that can make you sleepy, such as alcohol and sedatives.
For mild or moderate obstructive sleep apnea, an oral appliance may keep your airway open. This device works by pulling your jaw forward and moving both your tongue and the roof of your mouth away from the back of your throat.
The most common and effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP machine. This machine pumps air through a tube into a mask that fits over your nose or both your nose and mouth. The mild air pressure of the CPAP machine helps keep your airway open, enabling you to get a deep, restful sleep.