What is Sleep Apnea?

Snoring and fatigue are often a sign of a more serious problem called Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA).

OSA is a breathing disorder characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep that affects men and women of all ages.

One in four Canadians is at high risk for having obstructive sleep apnea. Most of those at risk are not screened for OSA and go undiagnosed.

What happens when you have OSA?

When you go to sleep, your muscles relax including those in your throat. In some people, the floppy muscles cause the airways to narrow, which can reduce the amount of air flowing in and out. If your throat closes completely, you stop breathing for a time. This is called an apnea if it last for 10 seconds or more. If the airway in your throat narrows for 10 seconds or more and the oxygen level in your blood dips, you will experience a hypopnea. Hypopneas can be accompanied by snoring. Snoring is simply the sound of the tissues in the throat vibrating.

After an apnea or hypopnea, your brain will start your breathing again and often this is done unconsciously. Some people wake up briefly but others are not aware of what is happening. Breathing often restarts with gasp and some movement. If you have severe OSA, this cycle can happen hundreds of times per night. These frequent arousals disrupt your sleep and so you can feel very sleepy during the day.

Most people with OSA don’t know they are snoring or waking up at night and gasping for air. Also, they have become accustomed to daytime sleepiness. For these reasons, they do not speak with their family physicians about the symptoms. Very often it is the bed partner who reports these signs and prompts the sufferer to seek help. OSA can be a serious problem that is easy to detect and treat.

Diagram of a normal open airway


Open airway

Diagram of a partially blocked airway, which causes snoring


Partially blocked airway

Diagram of a fully blocked airway


Fully blocked airway

If you think you have sleep apnea, please read about the Apnea Health 3 Step Process.

Who is at risk?

Patients suffering from the following conditions may be at risk:

Factors which may make snoring and apnea worse:

  • Sleeping on the back
  • Alcohol at bedtime
  • Sleeping pills or narcotic (sedating) pain pills at bedtime

Signs and Symptoms

First thing in the morning:

  • Dry mouth
  • Unrestored feeling
  • Morning headache

During the day:

  • Lack of energy
  • Irritability and moodiness
  • Fatigue and sleepiness
  • Lack of sex drive
  • Difficulty with focus, memory

In the nighttime:

  • Getting up frequently to go to the bathroom
  • Occasional choking sensation
  • Snoring and snorting awake witnessed by others
  • Restless sleep
  • Night sweating

Physical findings may include:

  • Increased collar size (>17.5″ in men, >15.5″ around in women)
  • High blood pressure
  • Swelling of the feet or ankles
  • Restless leg syndrome