Health & Safety

July 20, 2012

Obstructive sleep apnea steals a good night’s slumber

by Kristin Shives
TRICARE Management Activity

Do you hit the snooze button when the alarm sounds in the morning? Are you dozing off during morning meetings at work? Has yawning excessively throughout the day become more common? If so, these could be symptoms associated with obstructive sleep apnea, a condition millions of American adults have, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The most common form of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea, occurs when there are an increased number of pauses in breathing during periods of sleep. The pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes and can happen hundreds of times per night. After the pauses, normal breathing continues often accompanied by a loud snort or choking sound. Obstructive sleep apnea causes people to move in and out of deep sleep, limiting periods of restful sleep, resulting in feeling tired during the day.

For people who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, the airway can be blocked or narrowed during sleep for several reasons. NIH lists several factors associated with obstructive sleep apnea:

  • While asleep throat muscles and tongues relax more than normal
  • Having tongues and tonsils that are large in comparison to the size of the opening in the windpipe can impact air flow
  • Being overweight. The extra fat tissue causes the wall of the windpipe to thicken, narrowing the airway and making it harder to keep the airway open while sleeping
  • The shape of an individual’s head and neck can create a smaller airway size in the mouth and throat, potentially impacting airflow
  • The aging process limits the brain signals that keep the throat and muscles stiff during sleep, preventing narrowing of the airway

Untreated obstructive sleep apnea can lead to serious cardiovascular complications such as a heart attack and stroke. Beneficiaries should get medical attention if they suffer from this treatable condition.

Health care providers can diagnose obstructive sleep apnea by combining personal medical and family history, a physical exam and results of a sleep study. TRICARE covers sleep studies, but the provider must refer beneficiaries to a sleep disorder centers after a review of their medical information.

Obstructive sleep apnea is commonly treated with lifestyle changes such as losing weight or avoiding alcohol before sleeping, mouthpieces, surgery, or breathing devices. Currently, there are no medications used to treat this disorder. A physician will determine what treatment options are best to relieve daytime sleepiness, a common symptom of obstructive sleep apnea.

To better understand sleep apnea and how it’s treated, visit NIH website To learn more about TRICARE’s coverage for diagnostic sleep studies go to

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