• Reviewed on 12/12
    By Dr. Harrington

Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Causes

In OSA, the upper air passage is narrowed or blocked during sleep by the tongue and other soft tissues. Many people with OSA are snorers. As soft tissues block the airway air cannot flow into the lungs, although efforts to breathe continue. Breathing stops for several seconds to over a minute, and levels of blood oxygen may drop during these episodes. Eventually, the brain wakes you up enough to tighten the muscles of the upper airways, openingthem enough for air to flow through again. This arousal is brief,  and the person likely won't remember it. These repeated arousals decrease sleep quality, and people with sleep apnea often feel tired during the day.

Not all obstructive sleep apnea is caused by soft-tissue obstruction. The airway may also be narrowed by excessive body weightor may just be naturally more narrow, making it more likely to collapse.

In children, obstructive sleep apnea is often caused by enlarged tonsils or adenoids.

Central sleep apnea, a much rarer condition, occurs when the brain intermittently fails to send the appropriate signals to the breathing muscles for respiration.

More Causes Information
Back to Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Bookmark and Share

Sleep Center

The Sleep Center at National Jewish Health is the oldest and most comprehensive sleep medicine program in the Denver region.

Learn more.

Show Us What You Can Do in Just One Breath


Make a Donation


Sign Up for e-Newsletters

Enter your email address to receive health tips, recent research findings and news about National Jewish Health.