Physical findings and the risk for obstructive sleep apnea. The importance of oropharyngeal structures

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2000 Aug;162(2 Pt 1):740-8. doi: 10.1164/ajrccm.162.2.9908123.


In this study, we hypothesized that anatomic abnormalities of the oropharynx, particularly narrowing of the airway by the lateral pharyngeal walls, tonsils, and tongue, would be associated with an increased likelihood for obstructive apnea among patients presenting to a sleep disorders center. To test this hypothesis, we used data from a cohort of 420 patients presenting to the Penn Center for Sleep Disorders. Associations between individual variables in the clinical evaluation model and sleep apnea as defined by a respiratory disturbance index greater than or equal to 15 events per hour were characterized by odds ratios (ORs) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs). Multivariable logistic regression was used to simultaneously estimate ORs for multiple variables and to control for other relevant patient characteristics. Results showed that narrowing of the airway by the lateral pharyngeal walls (OR = 2.5; 95% CI, 1.6-3.9) had the highest association with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) followed by tonsillar enlargement (OR = 2.0; 95% CI, 1.0-3.8), enlargement of the uvula (OR = 1.9; 95% CI, 1.2-2.9), and tongue enlargement (OR = 1.8; 95% CI, 1.0-3.1). Low-lying palate, retrognathia, and overjet were not found to be significantly associated with OSA. Controlling for BMI and neck circumference, only lateral narrowing and enlargement of the tonsils maintained their significant (OR = 2.0 and 2.6, respectively). A subgroup analysis examining differences between male and female subjects showed that no oropharyngeal risk factor achieved significance in women while lateral narrowing was the sole independent risk factor in men. These findings suggest that enlargement of the oropharyngeal soft tissue structures, particularly the lateral pharyngeal walls, is associated with an increased likelihood of OSA among patients presenting to sleep disorders centers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Humans
  • Jaw Abnormalities / complications
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Odds Ratio
  • Oropharynx / anatomy & histology*
  • Palate / abnormalities
  • Palatine Tonsil / abnormalities
  • Pharynx / abnormalities
  • Polysomnography
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Factors
  • Sleep Apnea Syndromes / etiology*
  • Tongue / abnormalities
  • Uvula / abnormalities