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Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition in which a person has episodes of blocked breathing during sleep.


Normally, the muscles of the upper part of the throat help keep the airway open and allow air to flow into the lungs. Even though these muscles usually relax during sleep, the upper throat remains open enough to let air pass by.

However, some people have a narrower throat area. When the muscles in their upper throat relax during sleep, their airway may completely close. This prevents air from getting into the lungs. Loud snoring and labored breathing occur. During deep sleep, breathing can stop for a period of time (often more than 10 seconds). This is called apnea.

An apnea episode is followed by a sudden attempt to breathe, and a change to a lighter stage of sleep. The result is fragmented or interrupted sleep that is not restful. As a result, those with sleep apnea feel more drowsy or sleepy during the day, called excessive daytime drowsiness.

Older obese men seem to be at higher risk, although many people with obstructive sleep apnea are not obese. The following factors may also increase your risk for obstructive sleep apnea:

  • Certain shapes of the palate and jaw
  • Large tonsils and adenoids in children
  • Large neck or collar size
  • Large tongue
  • Narrow airway
  • Nasal obstruction
  • Obesity

Drinking alcohol or using sedatives before sleep may make you more likely to have an episode of apnea.


A person who has obstructive sleep apnea often is not aware of the apnea episodes during the night. Often, family members, especially spouses, witness the periods of apnea.

A person with obstructive sleep apnea usually snores heavily soon after falling asleep. The snoring continues at a regular pace for a period of time, often becoming louder. It is then interrupted by a long silent period during which there is no breathing. This is followed by a loud snort and gasp, and the snoring returns. This pattern repeats frequently throughout the night.

The main symptoms are usually associated with excessive daytime sleepiness:

  • Abnormal daytime sleepiness, including falling asleep at inappropriate times
  • Awakening unrefreshed in the morning

Other symptoms may include:

  • Depression (possibly)
  • Memory difficulties
  • Morning headaches
  • Personality changes
  • Poor concentration
  • Restless and fitful sleep
  • Frequent waking up during the night to urinate
  • Insomnia

Other symptoms that may occur with this disease:

  • Hyperactive behavior, especially in children
  • Leg swelling (if severe)

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will perform a complete history and physical exam. This will involve carefully checking your mouth, neck, and throat. You may be given a survey that asks a series of questions about daytime sleepiness, sleep quality, and bedtime habits.

A sleep study (polysomnogram) is used to confirm obstructive sleep apnea.

Other tests that may be performed include:

  • Arterial blood gases
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • Echocardiogram
  • Thyroid function studies

If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to serious consequences such as:  high blood pressure, GERD, CAP, cardiac dysrhythmias, heart attack and stroke.

If you believe you suffer from sleep apnea, contact Avera Yankton Ear, Nose & Throat as soon as possible. No referrals are necessary. An evaluation with clinic staff will include a discussion of your previous medical history and complete physical exam.


After your comprehensive exam, clinic staff will discuss your options for treatment. Some modifications that can be done on your own include exercise and weight loss. A polysomnagram or sleepstudy may be needed to diagnose some cases of sleep apnea. Other treatments include CPAP (continous positive airway pressure) medical equipment or even surgery to remove the extra tissue causing obstruction.

Additional Information

Learn more about sleep apnea and treatments.

  • Central Sleep Apnea - Central sleep apnea is when you repeatedly stop breathing during sleep because the brain temporarily stops sending signals to the muscles that control breathing.
  • Polysomnograophy - A sleep study monitors you as you sleep, or try to sleep.