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Chest. 1992 Feb;101(2):541-9.

Mechanisms of obstructive sleep apnea.

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Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland.


This article has reviewed the anatomic, compliance, reflex, and respiratory muscle variables that affect upper airway caliber and abnormalities which may precipitate upper airway collapse during sleep. One or more of these variables may be important in the mechanism of OSA in any given patient. First, anyone with anatomic narrowing of the upper airway is susceptible to OSA. However, we do know if anatomic narrowing of the upper airway is necessary for the development of OSA. Surely, heavy snoring produces pharyngeal trauma and possibly edema or inflammation, which in turn may narrow the upper airway. Submucosal adipose tissue or cervical adipose tissue may compress the airway when the tonic electrical activity of the pharyngeal muscles decreases with sleep onset. Data reviewed support the idea that the upper airway of OSA patients may be more collapsible than the upper airway of nonapneic subjects. Intrinsic tissue abnormalities have not been demonstrated that might be responsible for this collapsibility. Changes in collapsibility found are consistent with, and may be due to, changes in tonic and phasic contraction of upper airway muscles. Abnormalities in reflexes affecting upper airway size surely might exist in OSA. Edema or inflammation of pharyngeal tissues might not only narrow the upper airway but might also impair normal function of the receptors responsible for initiating protective reflexes. We propose the fluctuation between a low- and a high-drive state contributes to upper airway collapse in OSA. With this fluctuation the balance of forces and critical pressure concepts discussed above come into play (Fig 6). By stimulating upper airway inspiratory muscles, CO2 eliminates the hypoapneic, low-drive, high-resistance periods and thereby reduces the number of apneas. In addition, preferential stimulation of upper airway muscle activity dilates the upper airway per se. If the relative value of each of these factors can be determined diagnostically, perhaps therapy can be made more specific. By being more specific, therapy should be more successful than the present practice of prescribing a particular therapy, regardless of the specific mechanism responsible for the OSA in a given patient.

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