Obstructive sleep apnea is a severe sleep disorder. It causes breathing to stop and start repeatedly while you sleep.

With sleep apnea, the muscles in your upper airway relax while you’re sleeping. This causes your airways to become blocked off, keeping you from getting enough air. This may cause your breathing to pause for 10 seconds or longer until your reflexes initiate breathing to restart.

You’re considered to have severe sleep apnea if your breathing stops and restarts more than 30 times an hour.

The apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) measures obstructive sleep apnea to determine a range from mild to severe, based on the number of breathing pauses per hour you have while sleeping.

AHI between 5 and 15 episodes per hourAHI between 15 and 30AHI greater than 30

Read on to learn more about severe sleep apnea and how it’s treated.

Your bed partner may notice some symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea before you’re aware of them, including:

Symptoms you both may observe:

Symptoms that you might notice:

According to the American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA), sleep apnea can have long-term effects on your health. Sleep apnea left untreated or undiagnosed can have serious consequences, such as:

There are secondary effects as well, such as automobile accidents caused by falling asleep at the wheel.

According to the Nolo legal network, the Social Security Administration (SSA) doesn’t have a disability listing for sleep apnea. It does, however, have listings for breathing disorders, heart problems, and mental deficits that might be attributed to sleep apnea.

If you don’t qualify for the conditions listed, you may still be able to receive benefits through a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) form. Both your doctor and a claims examiner from Disability Determination Services will fill out an RFC form to determine whether you’re able to work due to:

  • your sleep apnea
  • the symptoms of your sleep apnea
  • the effects of those symptoms on your day-to-day life

You are at a higher risk for obstructive sleep apnea if:

  • You have overweight or obesity. Although anyone can have sleep apnea, obesity is considered by the American Lung Association (ALA) to be the most important risk factor. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, sleep apnea affects over 20 percent of people with obesity compared to about 3 percent of people of moderate weight. According to the Mayo Clinic, obstructive sleep apnea can also be caused by conditions associated with obesity, such as polycystic ovary syndrome and hypothyroidism.
  • You’re male. According to the ALA, men are 2 to 3 times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than premenopausal women. The risk is about the same for men and postmenopausal women.
  • You have a family history. If obstructive sleep apnea has been diagnosed in other family members, according to the Mayo Clinic, you may be at higher risk.
  • You’re older. According to the ALA, obstructive sleep apnea becomes increasingly frequent as you age, leveling off once you reach your 60s and 70s.
  • You smoke. Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in people who smoke.
  • You have certain medical conditions. Your risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea may increase if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or asthma.
  • You have chronic nasal congestion. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs twice as often in people with chronic nasal congestion at night.
  • You have a crowded pharynx. Anything that makes the pharynx, or upper airway smaller — such as large tonsils or glands — can result in a greater chance for obstructive sleep apnea.

The ASAA estimates that between 1 and 4 percent of American children have sleep apnea.

Although surgical removal of the tonsils and adenoids is the most common treatment for pediatric obstructive sleep apnea, positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy and oral appliances are also prescribed.

Make an appointment with your doctor if you’re exhibiting any of the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, especially:

  • loud, disruptive snoring
  • episodes of stopped breathing while sleeping
  • abrupt awakenings from sleep that are frequently accompanied by gasping or choking

Your doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist, a medical doctor with additional training and education in sleep medicine.

Treatment for severe obstructive sleep apnea includes lifestyle changes, therapies and surgeries, if needed.

Lifestyle changes

Those with an obstructive sleep apnea diagnosis will be encouraged to, if necessary:

  • maintain a moderate weight
  • quit smoking
  • participate in regular exercise
  • reduce alcohol consumption


Therapies to address sleep apnea include:


Your doctor may recommend surgery, such as:

  • uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) to remove tissue to create space
  • upper airway stimulation
  • jaw surgery to create space
  • tracheostomy to open the neck, usually only in the case of life-threatening obstructive sleep apnea
  • implants to reduce upper airway collapse

Severe obstructive sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that involves breathing that repeatedly stops and starts while you sleep.

Obstructive sleep apnea left untreated or undiagnosed can have serious and life-threatening consequences. If you’re experiencing any symptoms, make an appointment to see your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment options.