Obstructive sleep apnea basics

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Table 2. Screening for asymptomatic populations
Screening patients for OSA starts with a good sleep history to identify symptoms, risk factors, and comorbid conditions, as well as a physical examination for OSA-related features (Table 2). The Epworth Sleepiness Scale and STOP-BANG questionnaire are brief, effective screening tools that can inform the need for further testing.

Sleep history

A sleep history starts with determining the patient’s total sleep time, based on time to bed, time to fall asleep, and time of wake up, including any difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or daytime naps.

Symptoms. Daytime naps generally indicate a sleep deficit or sleep that is not refreshing. A review of sleep and daytime symptoms associated with OSA (Table 1) helps determine if excessive daytime sleepiness or unrefreshing sleep is out of proportion with the amount of sleep the patient is getting at night.

Some patients with OSA may have memory or concentration issues or feel like they have attention deficit disorder. In fact some patients are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder because of their insufficient sleep or unrefreshing sleep.

Drowsy driving is a special concern in patients with untreated OSA and sleep deprivation. Many patients have drowsy driving episodes or difficulty staying awake during long-distance driving. Caffeine use is also important information as excessive caffeine may be used to combat sleepiness during the day.

The Epworth Sleepiness Scale is a clinical screening tool that presents 8 situations for patients to consider and indicate their level of sleepiness and likelihood of falling asleep (never = 0; slight = 1; moderate = 2, high = 3).21,22 A total score ≥ 10 is considered abnormal in that the patient is excessively sleepy compared with most people.

Risk factors and comorbid conditions. OSA risk factors and comorbidities, including a BMI obesity assessment, should be reviewed with patients. Nasal congestion or mouth breathing especially at night could be due to airway obstruction increasing the risk of OSA. Family history of OSA, tobacco, alcohol use, other medical conditions, and medications should also be discussed.

Physical examination

Figure 1. Friedman palate positions (classes 1, 2, 3, and 4).

Figure 1. Friedman palate positions (classes 1, 2, 3, and 4).

Certain findings on physical examination could suggest the presence of OSA:
  • Neck circumference greater than 17 inches for men or greater than 16 inches for women
  • BMI greater than 30
  • Friedman class tongue position class 3 or greater (Figure 1)
  • Mouth features (present/enlarged tonsils, macroglossia, jaw misalignment)
  • Nasal abnormalities (turbinate hypertrophy, deviated septum).5

Patients with Friedman palate positions class 3 and 4 have a higher risk of OSA due to airway crowding during sleep when the airway naturally collapses a little and is even more restricted.

Narrow airways or oropharyngeal crowding can also be due to a swollen, enlarged, or elongated uvula; present or enlarged tonsils; or lateral wall narrowing. Alone or in combination, these features can contribute to airway obstruction.

Other signs in the mouth suggestive of obstruction are macroglossia (enlarged tongue) and tongue ridging. Tongue ridging or scalloping impressions typically occur during sleep and are caused by the tongue moving forward to open the airway and pressing against the teeth.

Retrognathia (lower jaw offset behind upper jaw) can narrow the airway and increase the risk of OSA as can a high arch palate, overbite (upper teeth forward), or overjet (upper teeth over the top of lower teeth).

A nasal examination for nasal valve collapse (ie, nostril collapses with inhalation), deviated septum, and inferior turbinate hypertrophy impart an increased risk of OSA.

Screening tools

In addition to the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, the STOP-BANG questionnaire can help determine if a patient should be tested further for OSA. The STOP-BANG questionnaire consists of 8 yes-no questions where more than 2 yes responses indicate the patient is at higher risk for moderate to severe OSA (93% sensitivity): Snore, Tired, Observed stopped breathing, high blood Pressure, BMI > 35 kg/m2, Age > 50, Neck > 15.75 inches, Gender = male).23

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Sleep apnea and the heart

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