Sleep Apnea and Oxygen Desaturation

Disordered Breathing During Sleep

Sleep Study
Sleep Study. Jeff T. Green / Stringer / Getty Images

Patients who develop sleep disturbances often seek the aid of a physician who commonly refers them for sleep studies. Sleep studies can yield important diagnostic information about a person's sleep cycles, oxygen levels, and the quantity and length of breathing interruptions.

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

One of the most common sleep disorders diagnosed in people with difficulty sleeping is obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA.

The condition affects more than 12 million Americans, and can be serious. Information gathered during a sleep study can guide a physician in making the diagnosis.

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when there is a blockage of air flow through the throat during sleep when a person's upper airway (pharynx or windpipe) collapses during sleep. When this happens, breathing stops for as little as 10 seconds and even up to a minute or longer, or slows dramatically (known as hpoapnea).

People with sleep apnea experience frequent, repeated episodes during a single night, sometimes hundreds. And while the person may sleep right through the episodes completely unaware of them, often a partner will notice and become alarmed.

During periods of apnea, people received less air, which results in decreased oxygen delivery to the body. This oxygen decrease is called oxygen desaturation.

The following represent generally accepted ranges for oxygen saturation at sea level:

Normal96-97 percent
Mildly Abnormal90 to 96 percent
Moderately Abnormal80 to 89 percent
Severely Abnormal80 percent or lower

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

Due to disrupted, sleep apnea can cause people to feel drowsier the next day. In addition, without treatment, sleep apnea can result in any of the following signs and symptoms:

Who Is at Risk for Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

People of any age, gender or weight can develop obstructive sleep apnea, but the disorder is more common among those who are:

  • Obese
  • Middle aged (between 40 and 60 years old)
  • Male 
  • Men with a neck circumference of 17 inches or greater; women with a neck circumference of 16 inches or greater
  • Englarged tonsils and/or adenoids
  • Smokers
  • Users of alcohol, sedatives or tranquilizers. 

How Is Sleep Apnea Treated?

There are various lifestyle modifications that are often very successful in curing sleep apnea for some people. These include:

  • Losing weight: Modest weight loss can help provide moderate relief of apnea, and greater weight loss can even cure the disorder.
  • Changing sleep position: Sleeping on the side or stomach can alleviate sleep apnea because back sleeping allows the tongue and soft palate to rest on the back of the throat, blocking the airway.
  • Avoiding alcohol, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills: These can relax the muscles in the back of the throat causing it to collapse during sleep.
  • Keep nasal passages clear: Using a saline nasal spray or a neti pot (a small pot used to pour water into the nostrils) can clear nasal passages, allowing increased air flow.

When lifestyle treatments fail, or for patients with more dramatic oxygen desaturation levels, a treatment known as continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) can be very effective. CPAP machines blow air into the nose and/or mouth, creating a gentle pressure of air that pushes the throat open. This prevents it from collapsing during sleep and averts apnea.

Continue Reading