Apnea – A Word with Many Uses

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is a very common malady. It is familiar to many and is frequently a subject of both social and medical conversations. Individuals not engaged in frequent work with Apnea conditions may be confused by its usage and rightly so. Discussions and writings about the subject can use the term with different meanings.  When used by professionals, it can also be used in various ways. It has a physiologic technical meaning; it is used as a proper name of medical conditions; and, it has a common usage that is less specific.

The word – apnea – comes from the Latin and Greek languages. The Latin ‘a + pnea’ means without breath and the Greek ‘apnoia’ means without pain. The Webster dictionary defines apnea as ”Transient cessation of respiration”. Webster’s definition fits well with the current technical use of the word, but fails to show the scope of the word’s use that has increased over the past half-century with the recognition of the associated clinical conditions.

Webster’s definition fits well with the current technical use of the word, but fails to show the scope of the word’s use…

The word is used technically to label a cessation of breathing. Sleep testing, in facilities or at home, and physiologic monitoring of hospital patients can identify periods when no air is going in or out of the nose or mouth. No breaths can be measured. These events are called Apneas.  

The word is used technically to label a cessation of breathing.

The addition of chest movement measurements during these apnea events further defines these periods of apnea.  If the breathing efforts are persistent during an apnea episode, the event is labeled an Obstructive Apnea. If no breathing efforts are being made by the chest, the pump that moves air in and out, the apnea is caused by the lack of chest effort and is called a Central Apnea.  It is called central because breathing effort by the chest is controlled, started and adjusted, by the Central Nervous System.  If the breathing problem is associated with both partially reduced chest movement and total cessation of movement, it is labeled a Mixed Apnea.   As we can see, the technical apnea breathing events are further defined as obstructive, central or mixed.

‘Apnea’ is used as part of the proper name of medical conditions

‘Apnea’ is used as part of the proper name of medical conditions. These conditions were described and first recognized approximately a half-century ago, but probably have been affecting mankind for our entire history. Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the first of these. When breathing is blocked or partially blocked for 10 seconds at least five times per hour, a diagnosis of the clinical syndrome of Obstructive Sleep Apnea is established.

Central Sleep Apnea is the clinical condition where the primary form of apneas measured is central.  It is established when a certain percentage of the physiologic apneas recorded on testing are the central type.  Central Sleep Apnea can be the result of multiple medical issues that range from cardiovascular problems to neurologic conditions.  It can be rarely seen on its own and not associated with other medical problems.  

A third commonly accepted diagnostic term is Complex Sleep Apnea.  This diagnostic group represents individuals with obstructive sleep apnea treated with CPAP whose breathing events do not resolve when they are treated. Their Apnea Hypopnea Index remains high. However, on repeated testing with CPAP, the breathing events are now predominantly Central Apneas. The CPAP treatment caused a change from Obstructive Apnea events to Central Apnea events. This type of medical condition is called Complex Sleep Apnea.

The term Apnea Hypopnea Index (AHI) may be new to some, but it is very important that it is understood. The ‘Apnea’ referred to is the physiologic measured Apneas. ‘Hypopnea’ is a partial obstructive breathing event measured on testing.  They have the same secondary effects as apnea events but without the total cessation of airflow. The AHI is a calculated number representing the total events (Apnea and Hypopneas) per hour. 

The AHI is the measurement on a diagnostic sleep test that determines if an apnea condition of some type is present.  With a patient on therapy, it is the number that is followed by the physician to determine how well the therapy is working.  It is measured on most CPAP machines and can be reviewed by the patient on a day-by-day basis.  The AHI on a diagnostic test is and has been the measurement to determine the severity of sleep apnea conditions for many years. The AHI is an example of the technical use of the word apnea.

…the common use of the term Apnea is far less specific…

Finally, the common use of the term Apnea is far less specific than the uses we have reviewed. Often, the word is used to encompass a broad range of the field. In writings and conversations, it will be used by an author as a single word to cover all, or one, of the apnea medical conditions – obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea and complex sleep apnea. When discussing Obstructive Sleep Apnea conversationally, most will speak about apnea, meaning obstructive sleep apnea.  The most simple descriptive of its common use is as a substitute for the clinical conditions associated with breathing problems during sleep.

What we have covered.

1. Apnea is technically an absence of breaths (no airflow at the nose and mouth). 

2. Apnea, used technically, during sleep is further defined by its features to be obstructive, central or mixed.

*Obstructive apnea

*Central apnea

*Mixed apnea

3. Apnea is used in the formal name of medical conditions including:

*Obstructive Sleep Apnea

*Central Sleep Apnea

*Complex Sleep Apnea

4. Apnea, used in its technical manner, is a component of the Apnea Hypopnea Index measurement used to judge the severity of the problem.

5. Apnea’s common use is as a general term covering one or all of the clinical conditions 

RGH June 29, 2020

The Goals of Obstructive Sleep Apnea Treatment

“Why am I using that this thing?” they asked me.  This ‘thing’ they were referring to is also known as CPAP.

Many people find themselves having had a sleep test and they are not sure why. They have a CPAP machine (Constant Positive Airway Pressure machine). Yet, they tell me, “I don’t know why.” Yes, they’ve been told they have apnea (Obstructive Sleep Apnea or OSA), but why do they need to do this? It is a question that they should be able to answer. Why do we use CPAP?  Why do we treat OSA?

Why do we treat OSA?

 When a sleep evaluation or sleep testing was considered for you, your physician felt it might explain some of your sleep related symptoms or medical problems.  It might have been for snoring that you were not even aware had been occurring. Maybe you were sleepier than you wanted to be or more sleepy than your family or friends thought you should be. It could have been for another non-related issue.  Your doctor was concerned that your problem with glaucoma, asthma or hypertension may have been made worse by or possibly even caused by a sleep condition. The test was ordered.  Obstructive Sleep Apnea was found and now you have a CPAP machine.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea may cause symptoms. Excessive sleepiness, poor quality nocturnal sleep and waking up with headaches are just a few of these symptoms. Your snoring could be waking your spouse.  Certainly, you would prefer not to have the symptoms.  You want to sleep better and to feel better during the day. 

One of the major goals of therapy for OSA, including CPAP, is to improve or eliminate symptoms.  When the obstructive apnea is corrected, many of its symptoms resolve or improve, sometimes dramatically.  If you had symptoms when your apnea was diagnosed, one goal of therapy is to improve or correct those symptoms.   

Most symptoms of OSA are not specific.

Most symptoms of OSA are not specific.  A wide range of medical conditions, some common and others not so common, can cause these symptoms.  It is unfortunate, but our sleepiness or headaches do not come with labels telling us what is causing them to occur.  Often, sleep apnea treated with CPAP will totally correct the obstructive events, but the symptoms that led to the evaluation and testing do not go away.  

Many patients at the time they are diagnosed with significant obstructive apnea will have few or no symptoms.  These individuals have varying degrees of OSA severity on their sleep testing.  Surprisingly, significant OSA can be seen with minimal symptoms or even no symptoms.  While the number of obstructive events per hour will generally be related to the severity of the symptoms, is it not unusual to see patients with both moderate and severe apnea with few symptoms.  Even without symptoms, our current knowledge strongly supports the need for their treatment.

Many patients at the time they are diagnosed with significant obstructive apnea will have few or no symptom.

Understanding the reason for treating individuals with few or no symptoms requires a little more information. Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the repeated interruption of someone’s breathing while asleep. The obstructions result in a blood oxygen drop and an arousal to light sleep or brief awaking. These arousals are not usually associated with full awakenings.  Most individuals are not aware that the obstructions have occurred.  

There are two types of obstructions. The first is a total blockage of the airway with a drop in blood oxygen level while breathing efforts from the chest continues.  The technical term for complete obstruction is Apnea. The second is a partial blockage of the airway while the breathing continues.  These partial blockages cause the same problems as seen with an apnea. The technical term for the partial obstruction is Hypopnea. The two types of obstruction are measured during a night or portion of a night of sleep testing. The numbers of each are added together. When divided by the duration of the sleep where the measurements were made, the results represent the number during an average hour of sleep.  The resulting number is the Apnea-Hypopnea Index or AHI.   The AHI is the average number of apneas and hypopneas in one hour of sleep.

The AHI is considered a measurement of the severity of Obstructive Sleep Apnea. Other factors enter into the measurement of severity. The most common would be the degree of oxygen drop that occurs with these obstructive events.  It is generally accepted that an AHI of less than 5 is not considered to be diagnostic of OSA.  An AHI of 5 to 15 events per hour is considered mild OSA.  An AHI of 15 to 30 is moderate and above 30 is severe Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

The AHI is considered a measurement of the severity of Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

In the past 40 years, thousands of research studies on Obstructive Sleep Apnea have been performed. The vast majority utilize the severity scale noted above. Those studies strongly support the current concept of the role of apnea in causing and aggravating other medical conditions.

The higher a person’s AHI on their diagnostic sleep test, the more likely they will die from a stroke or heart attack.  The risk is far higher than those who have no obstructive sleep apnea.  And, they die younger. When the AHI is greater than 15 per hour the risk is significant. An increased risk is measurable at an AHI of five but it is relatively small.  It is very small at an AHI of less than five.  It is generally accepted the long-term treatment of patients with an AHI greater than 15 at the time of diagnosis will improve secondary medical conditions and prolong life.

The second goal of therapy is obvious. It is to reduce or eliminate as many apnea and hypopnea events as possible. A person with OSA cannot know what their AHI is on any given day, night, week or month.  As noted above, the symptoms do not always reflect the success of OSA treatments.  However, with modern CPAP machines, technology can measure those events (AHIs) while you use the machine. Reports are now available on most machines, on most machine manufacturer’s websites, or through your physician.  You and your physician can know how well your therapy is controlling your AHI.

What have we covered.

1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea can occur with minimal or no symptoms.

2. Obstructive Sleep Apnea is treated for two reasons

3. Obstructive Sleep Apnea treatment may only improve one of the reasons it is being treated.

4. The Apnea Hypopnea Index (AHI) is the number of obstruction events per hour of sleep.The AHI while on therapy demonstrate how well the therapy is controlling the Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

Three questions follow naturally from this brief review. These topics will be addressed in future post.

1. Why do I still have symptoms on treatment for OSA?

2. If I have mild OSA when diagnosed, do I need treatment?

3. What is the definition of apnea?  

Why is OSA treated?  The two reasons are: to improve symptoms and control the obstructive events.  When we treat OSA, the treatment may be successful treating both, or just one of the two.  One or both may be the reason CPAP, or another treatment, was recommended for you. 

Goals of treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnea

1.Control symptoms 

2. Control the obstructive events

RGH 6-23-2020

Science’s Ugly Face and Coronavirus, Spring 2020

I am reminded of a cartoon from the 1960’s.  People can be seen bowing before an altar, an empty altar, with the name ”Nothing” on it.  On the top of the altar, there is nothing.  It is empty. In the rear looking towards the altar, one person whispers a question to a second person,  “Is nothing sacred?”

Science is not sacred.  Science is not a thing.  Science is a process, a technique, and a method to study problems, questions, theories and their solutions in an organized manner.  What then are scientists?  They are people who use the method. They are individuals from almost any field of human endeavor doing research in their fields of interest. But, most of all they are humans.

“Is nothing sacred?”

We are washing our hands more these days. Coronavirus has seen to that, but it was not always so. There was a time in human history when, among doctors, it was not thought fashionable, necessary, or appropriate to wash hands. In fact, the presence of bloody debris on doctor’s clothing and hands was a sign of importance. 

A physician in the 1840s, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, observed and studied a problem with infections in labor and delivery at Vienna General Hospital. Infection rates and mortality rates for women having their babies in the hospital were extremely high. His observations led him to believe that maybe the doctors themselves were transferring infections to patients in the hospital. He implemented what we would consider to be basic hygiene steps and instituted hand washing for the doctors between each patient’s evaluation and exam. The changes resulted in a dramatic improvement. Infection rates, in the area of the hospital where this was used, plummeted.

Unfortunately, this was not well received. The doctors working at his time in history would not accept his observations and facts.  Dr. Semmelweis was shamed, belittled and driven from the profession. Many decades would pass and many others would confirm his work before the value of hand washing was accepted by the medical profession.

…shamed, belittled and driven from the profession.

Change is difficult to accept.  Belief in the change has to occur before it can be accepted.  A scientific study is a man-made creation.  One fact is studied, but multiple measurements are made.  The measurements are reviewed and conclusions are reached by men. Can other researchers duplicate the results? The process of science is a back-and-forth path.  Even when a fact becomes established and proven to be verifiable, it may not be accepted into practice for many years. Likewise, established facts or practices that are proven wrong by new research will not be discarded untill many years or decades pass.  In each case, the delay is often the result of other more human reasons.

Well-designed scientific studies in medicine and its related fields are large and very expensive endeavors that can last several years. They require years of commitment and dedication from the researchers. Reputations, careers, professional positions, titles, rewards and not the least, egos, become established, glorified, tarnished and destroyed based on scientific study results and positions taken regarding those results. Unsurprisingly, human behavior enters into acceptance. When the facts are not clear or not definitive, time is required for new studies to provide new information or knowledge about the subject. The factual debate may last years, decades, or even centuries.  Unfortunately, strong personalities expressed through loud voices with bully pulpits will often sway the profession, government or public to positions that do not tell the entire or accurate story.  It can be, as in Dr. Semmelweis’ case, decades before a truer picture is known.

Public awareness of papers by researchers in any field is usually limited to observing the results of those studies and the generally accepted facts of the time. The scientific review process is not generally in the public view. The back-and-forth, the arguments, the clashing of the egos, has been carried out without public awareness. Now the new coronavirus pandemic is unfolding before us.  The airways and social media are full of studies, opinions and arguments regarding the appropriate approach to diagnosing, treating and preventing coronavirus infections.  The chaos you hear is real because no one knows what the elephant looks like.  Like the blind men describing an elephant, each has his hands on some limited part of the animal’s anatomy, but the full picture will not be known for some time.

The chaos you hear is real…

One thing should be kept in mind.  Medicine and its practice remains a learned art that applies experience, knowledge and technology to help humans manage their sufferings.  Scientific facts have improved those skills and the techniques used to treat and assist those in need.  Remember, while today’s reported scientific facts may indicate future practices (Semmelweis and hand washing), it may represent one person’s need for recognition and praise ultimately signifying nothing.  

This scientific noise about the coronavirus will settle with time and a truer picture of what it means will become clearer.  For the time being, the noise is being amplified by our politicians and media that have little experience in things medical and have their own needs for recognition.  Do not expect that to change soon.

RGH June 2020

Coronavirus Risk and Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Are you at increased risk of a serious coronavirus infection if you have obstructive sleep apnea? No one knows, although one day that information will be available. What do you do when placed in a situation with an unknown that can affect you drastically? What we always do; look for information and compare it with our previous similar experiences.  Leaving our home for a day’s activity when the clouds are dark and rain is in the forecast, it is only smart to take along the umbrella or raincoat. The same is true for the coronavirus. We need to consider:

                        What do the experts tell us?

                        What is our experience with other infections?


The experts tell us coronavirus is a contagious respiratory infectious agent. It may cause life-threatening illness and it also may infect people without causing illness. The number infected is not known and the percent of life threatening illnesses is not established, but it is gradually appearing that it is a smaller percentage than was initially predicted.

What causes some to be very ill and even die? The picture is becoming clearer with time. The elderly, the chronically ill, the immunosuppressed and others with poor health are more likely to be severely ill. The death rate for those individuals is much higher than for the population in general. In some areas, over half of those who die with the illness are from these groups. 

Are there others? Yes there are. We have heard the ‘news’ reports about them. Why in otherwise healthy individuals can the infection cause severe illnesses?  Experts can only speculate on the subject.  The possibilities include exposure to a heavy dose of the virus.  A heavy dose is more likely to make someone severely ill than a lighter dose. The healthy person may have unrecognized underlying medical conditions. They may have an unrecognized deficiency in their ability to fight off this specific type of viral infection.  For most of these unfortunate individuals, no one will be able to explain why.

We do know that heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and obesity are frequently cited as problems associated with dying from an infection with the coronavirus.


What does our experience tell us?  A common experience most of us will have is with influenza. In fact, as time passes, coronavirus has begun to act like a severe influenza. Coronavirus is more contagious than influenza, but it is beginning to appear to have a similar mortality. There is no immunization available at present to prevent the illness and it is certainly best to avoid catching it.

Older individuals are familiar with other infectious agents.  Some will remember polio, SARS, H1N1 (swine flu) and the early concerns about HIV.  With knowledge and experience, we have learned to live with some of these problems, to treat some and to watch as others pass from importance. So it will be with the coronavirus.

Obstructive sleep apnea and coronavirus

What about you as an obstructive sleep apnea patient? You should listen to experts and rely on experience. As a specialist in sleep medicine, I would advise you that obstructive sleep apnea is an underlying medical condition that places you at increased risk of a more severe infection if you contract the coronavirus.  In addition, many individuals with obstructive sleep apnea also have hypertension, diabetes and weight problems.  Hypertension, diabetes and weight problems are known risk factors for severe coronavirus infections.

We know that patients with untreated sleep apnea have more respiratory infections. They develop problems with many chronic illnesses. These problems are related to the severity of their apnea. The number of obstructive breathing events per hour (the apnea hypoxia index) without treatment is a measure of the underlying severity. The more events recorded the more severe your apnea. It is a fact that patients successfully treated with CPAP have less respiratory infections and fewer complications from chronic illnesses.

I suspect these facts will prove to be the same for the coronavirus. Untreated significant apnea will prove to be a risk factor for developing severe coronavirus infection .   However, successfully treated patients should have substantially less risk.

In summary

Having obstructive sleep apnea increases the risk of a severe coronavirus infection.

The risk will increase with the severity of the apnea.  

Treatment of apnea will reduce the risk.

If you have apnea, consider yourself to be at increased risk for a coronavirus infection.

                       Use your CPAP.

Coronavirus, Obstructive Sleep Apnea and CPAP

Week four of our national shut down.  Do you have your obstructive apnea under control?   I hope this finds you healthy and sleeping well.  What does having this virus around mean to you and others with obstructive sleep apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea is a chronic condition.  The coronavirus is a new infectious agent that produces a short-term illness.  It is a respiratory infection and in many ways parallels influenza. It appears to be more contagious and may produces a more intense severe illness.  None of us want to experience it.  

Seasons and years come and go.  Influenza comes and goes.  The common cold is a frequent visitor to the lives of busy people.  These things happen while people have the ongoing problem of obstructive sleep apnea.  Now we can add coronavirus to the list.

Treatment Recommendations

Many aspects of our treatment recommendation are the same. The two most important are:

                        Continue to use your CPAP

                        Have a regular cleaning schedule for your equipment

A respiratory outbreak, certainly the current coronavirus episode, calls for some attention to treatment recommendations.  While is it important to use the equipment, it is even more important to use your equipment during a widespread respiratory infections outbreak.  Regular CPAP users have fewer respiratory illnesses during these community wide infectious episodes. While we do not have experience with the coronavirus, it seems likely that regular CPAP usage will help in a similar manner as it does with the usual respiratory illness. So by all means:

                        USE YOUR CPAP – All Night Every Night

Cleaning Recommendations

Special attention should be paid to cleaning your equipment.  Sleep physicians are aware of the wide range of cleaning habits of our patients.   Many of us do not follow the guidelines suggested by the manufactures.  It might be time to reassess your cleaning pattern in the times of the coronavirus.

If you and yours are well and free of respiratory symptoms, cleaning your equipment should be on a fixed schedule.  Mask, tubing and humidifier should be cleaned at least once a week.  With a consideration of the nature of coronavirus, a dilute gentle soap solution would be the preferred cleaning agent.  Soap is a superior agent for coronal virus disinfecting.  If you haven’t been cleaning, start now.

                        KEEP YOUR EQUIPMENT CLEAN 

What if you are diagnosed with, or suspected of having, the coronavirus?

Usage becomes even more important.  When ill with respiratory symptoms, sleeping with your CPAP will speed up your recovery and lessen the severity of your illness.  It is more important that ever that you use your CPAP during the illness.

Cleaning your equipment is more important. When you have the coronavirus infection it is best to clean your mask, tubing and humidifier daily.  The machine and bedside table should be rubbed down with a disinfectant wipe. The pillowcase and sheets should be washed frequently if not daily.  The room should be aired out daily, if possible, between sleeping hours.

Five Z’s – Journal Review – Case Report – AHI variability

Article:  Long-term variability of the apnea-hypopnea index in a patient with mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea.

Date of Publication: February 15, 2020

Reference:  Fietze I, Glos M, Zimmermann S, Perzel T.  Long-term variability of the apnea-hypopnea index in a patient with mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea.  Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine Vol 16 (2);2020.

Reason/Problem/Purpose:Demonstrate the variability of night-to-night apnea measurements results in a single patient over 28 days.

Type of work:  Case Report

Study Performed:  A single patient (age unclear but >18 years) underwent testing at home for 28 days. A 6-channel unit was applied in the center each evening and removed each morning for the 28 days. 

Observed Results:  Long-term variability of the apnea-hypopnea index in a patient with mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea is significant.  

This patient had changes in overall AHI that appear to be only partially related to positional changes.

There were several important and somewhat surprising (to me) facts in this paper.

            In this single individual over the 28 nights of recording:

                        Full night AHIs varied:  15.1 +7.5  (That’s 22.6 to 7.6)

                        Supine AHIs varied:  44.6+– 16.9   (That’s 61.5 to 27.7)

                        Non Supine AHIs varied:  4.8+4.7  (That’s 8.9 to 0.7)

Authors’ Thoughts:  In appropriate clinical situation, repeat testing is indicated with normal values. They could find no reason for observed variability in supine or non-supine position night to night.  The classification of the apnea severity based on AHI can vary night to night.

RGH Comments:  A major component of this patient’s variability is related to the well recognized effect of position on AHI.  The amount of the variation in the patient’s same position AHI is very concerning .  While recognized as an issue, I have assumed much of the variations seen in practice to be only positional. In this single case, that does not appear to be the situation.

 It causes one to be more skeptical of our widely accepted mild, moderate and severe classification of a patient’s apnea based on a one night or a 2-hour split night sleep test.  

It should cause concern about the science of our field and the study of apnea.  Population studies, large clinical series and even shorter reports regarding patients with OSA are based on one or sometimes two nights of study and will undoubtedly include patients like this one.  How many patients have significant same position variability night to night?  It does mean we should view the studies in our field with some skepticism?  

From a clinical standpoint, the question we must ask ourselves is how many nights should be studied for the clinician to feel confident that apnea is not an issue for the patient?   When is a negative study really negative?

RGH Mar 2020

The Five Z’s – Journal Review – Nasal vs Oro-nasal PAP


Transmission of Oral Pressure Compromises Oronasal CPAP Efficacy in the Treatment of OSA

Date of Publication:  Dec 2019

Reference: Madeiro F, Andrade RGS, Piccin VS, Pinheiro GDL, et al. Transmission of Oral Pressure Compromises Oronasal CPAP Efficacy in the Treatment of OSA.  Chest 2019; 156(6):1187-1194

Reason/Problem/Purpose:  The authors point out reports that in general patients on oral/nasal mask do not do as well clinically as patients treated with nasal mask.  In addition those patients require more pressure than do those on nasal mask.

This study was designed to assess the reasons that occurs.

Type of work:  Patients (#13) who were on stable therapy with oral/nasal mask under went PSG with sedation. They had a pressure catheter placed at the level of the epiglottis and pediatric bronchoscopes placed at the velopharynx and oropharynx to evaluate the retro palatal area and retro glossal areas.   The masks they wore were oral/nasal masks with two independent sealed compartments with separate pressure monitoring.  Flow could be directed through one, the other or both.  CPAP titrations were carried out with nasal PAP and oral/nasal PAP.

Observed Results:  More pressure was required to stabilize patients with oral/nasal mask than with nasal alone.  The study suggests that the oral pressure compromises the nasal pressure at the retro-palate level.  Previous work had suggested the oral/nasal mask was pushing the tongue posteriorly.

Comments:  As most clinicians know, less is better most of the time when it comes to mask selection.  The authors suggest always encouraging a trial of a nasal mask for therapy.  

I couldn’t agree more.


What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea

What is sleep apnea? It is an extremely common condition that should be understood by everyone. Sleep apnea is a temporary blockage or obstruction of our breathing while we sleep. A person with sleep apnea experiences repeated blockages of their air passage during sleep.  The condition of obstructive sleep apnea is diagnosed when the blockages occur repeatedly.  

When we sleep, our muscles relax.  This can result in significant narrowing and often closure of the air passage between the lungs and the mouth and nose. The obstruction occurs between the voice box (larynx) and the nasal passage and mouth.  This relaxation results in a critical narrowing.  At some degree of relaxation, as the passage narrows, air has difficulty passing in and out of our lungs.  A partial obstruction is called ‘hypopnea’  while a complete obstruction is an ‘apnea’.  Both hypopneas and apneas have the same effects. Each is a significant obstructive event.

Figure 1

Side view of anatomy of upper airway. Top figure shows normal open airway. The bottom figure shows area of obstruction during a obstructive apnea event. The obstruction demonstrated is at the base of the tongue

Obstruction of the airway leads to physiological changes.  The level of oxygen in the blood drops and the level of carbon dioxide increases.  These changes occur within a few seconds.  The brain, through its mechanisms to control breathing, senses these changes and immediately increases our breathing efforts.  The increased breathing effort results in the opening of the air passage and the return to normal of the blood oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. This increased effort often produces a loud noise, snore or snort as airway open. The blockage will last for 15 to 20 seconds on average.   An individual can wake with the choking sensation when this occurs, however, that is very unusual. Most people sleep through the entire choking episode.

Figure 2

A three minute graphic recording of a person’s normal breathing. The items recorded are chest wall movements, air movement at nose and mouth, oxygen level, snoring and sleep level.

Figure 3

A three minute recording of a person having obstructive apnea events. Note the increase in chest wall movement, the absent of airflow, dropping oxygen levels, and snoring that is occurring.

The condition of obstructive sleep apnea is diagnosed when these events occur regularly and frequently. Current knowledge suggests that these have to occur at a certain frequency to create symptoms and/or medical problems. Medical professionals, insurance payers, and government bureaucrats established that five events or more per hour indicates the presence of the condition of obstructive sleep apnea.

The Five Z’s – Content and Tags

The Five Z’s is a professional blog directed towards the field of sleep medicine. While the content will vary, the focus will be primarily on the area of sleep medicine and related subjects. There will be commentaries on timely topics and reviews of journal articles .

Journal Reviews are labeled with the orange tag.

General sleep topics are labeled with the blue tag.

Other topics are labeled with the red tag.

A Bear in the Bedroom

Many, if not most people, come to doctors, sleep doctors or clinics because of symptoms or at the request of a family member.   Symptoms can be almost any issue with sleep and its quality, but nonrestorative sleep with daytime tiredness is the most common. More on that at another time. Family members often become concerned because of a person’s snoring or the interrupted breathing of a family member – a Bear in the Bedroom.

A bear you might not want in your bedroom

Snoring is extremely common with estimates running greater than 50% of some populations reviewed. Snoring is common in Obstructive Sleep Apnea and snoring is a sign of possible apnea.  But, not all those individuals with Obstructive Sleep Apnea snore and not all snorers have the condition. 

Well, what about a bear in the room?  To be honest, I don’t even know if bears snore.  The phrase, ‘snores like a bear,’ is frequently used to describe loud snorers. Loud is hard to define.  One person’s loud is another person’s soft. However, if we define loud as being able to hear someone outside of their sleeping room and down the hall or up or down stairs, those folks almost always have apnea and it is usually significant apnea.

Hear Someone Snoring From Outside Their Room? They All Most Always Have Apnea!

Do you hear you mother, father, sister, brother, friend, roommate, spouse or significant other snoring from the other side of the house?  They should be considered to have Obstructive Sleep Apnea until testing proves that is not the case.  Loud snoring is almost always Obstructive Sleep Apnea.  We’ll talk more about snoring in a future issue.

The Intermittent Bear in the Bedroom

You can hear the person sleeping.  They are snoring, first softly and then more loudly.  The snores develop a rhythmic pattern.  They start to come and go.   The pattern of noise gets your attention and keeps you from sleeping.

There is a loud, gasping, rough sounding snore or several in a row.  Following these grating, rattling noises, a slow, steady, almost melodious series of snores rhythmically lull you back toward your own sleep.  The snores fade and stop.  You listen and hear nothing. Then, after this quiet period, the grating, gasping suddenly returns and jars you awake. 

Does the above experience sound familiar?  They are the sounds of obstructive apnea.  The quiet period is the apnea.  The person is breathing and the diaphragms are working to move air into the lungs, but the airway is closed and no air is moving. The person takes a forceful breath and the airway opens with a loud gasp.

If you have been observed to have these events, you are extremely likely to have obstructive apnea. If you have seen these events in others, they are also likely to have apnea.

Hear Someone Having Breathing Problems While Asleep? They Almost Always Have Apnea!

If you sleep in a room or home with a bear, you are sleeping with someone who probably has significant Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

What Have We Reviewed

Loud snoring is almost always a sign of Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

Not everyone with Obstructive Sleep Apnea snores.

Hearing and Observing someone with breathing problems while he is asleep is almost always a sign that he has Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

Mr. Oso. The only type of bear you want in your bedroom. (Best Friend of SPH).


Obstructive Apnea is a very common problem for humans.

Symptoms and signs are often non-specific

 When sleep symptoms are present, Obstructive Apnea is often the cause.

What to Expect in Future Installments

What is Obstructive Apnea?

Why are individuals with Obstructive Apnea tired and sleepy?

Do you know what your apnea number was when you were diagnosed?

What are the goals of Apnea Therapy?

What is your apnea number now?