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Sleep Med Rev. 2002 Jun;6(3):229-42.

Upper airway muscles awake and asleep.

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Unité de Recherche, Centre de Pneumologie, Hôpital et Université Laval, 2725 Chemin Sainte Foy, Canada.


Upper airway (UA) structures are involved in different respiratory and non-respiratory tasks. The coordination of agonist and antagonist UA dilators is responsible for their mechanical function and their ability to maintain UA patency throughout the respiratory cycle. The activity of these muscles is linked with central respiratory activity but also depends on UA pressure changes and is greatly influenced by sleep. UA muscles are involved in determining UA resistance and stability (i.e. closing pressure), and the effect of sleep on these variables may be accounted for by its effect on tonic and phasic skeletal muscle activities. The mechanical effects of UA dilator contraction also depend on their physiological properties (capacity to generate tension in vitro, activity of the anaerobic enzymatic pathway, histo-chemical characteristics that may differ between subjects who may or may not have sleep-related obstructive breathing disorders). These characteristics may represent an adaptive process to an increased resistive loading of these muscles. The apparent discrepancy between the occurrence of UA closure and an increased capacity to generate tension in sleep apnea patients may be due to a reduction in the effectiveness of UA muscle contraction in these patients; such an increase in tissue stiffness could be accounted for by peri-muscular tissue characteristics. Therefore, understanding of UA muscle physiological characteristics should take into account its capacity for force production and its mechanical coupling with other UA tissues. Important research goals for the future will be to integrate these issues with other physiological features of the disease, such as UA size and dimension, histological characteristics of UA tissues and the effect of sleep on muscle function. Such integration will better inform understanding of the role of pharyngeal UA muscles in the pathophysiology of the sleep apnea/hypopnea syndrome.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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