Previous studies indicate that upper airway (UA) sensory receptors play a role in the maintenance of UA patency and contribute to arousal in response to airway occlusion. An impairment of UA sensory function could therefore predispose to UA obstruction during sleep. We hypothesized that UA sensation is impaired in obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), and that sensation improves after treatment with nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). We measured two-point discrimination (2PD) and vibratory sensation thresholds (VT) in 37 patients with OSA (mean [+/- SE] apnea- hypopnea index [AHI] = 39 +/- 5 events/h), 12 nonapneic snorers (SN), and 15 control subjects (CL). Sensory thresholds were determined in the UA and on the lip and hand as control sites. Both 2PD and VT were similar among the three groups at the lip and hand sites but were significantly reduced in the UA of OSA and SN subjects versus CL (p < 0.05). Values for 2PD and VT in the UA of OSA versus SN were not significantly different. Sensory measures were repeated after 6 mo in 23 OSA patients treated with CPAP as well as in 18 untreated patients. Thresholds for 2PD and VT at control sites remained identical in both groups, as did 2PD for the UA. However, VT in the UA showed a significant improvement in treated (4.4 +/- 0.2 pre-CPAP versus 3.8 +/- 0.2 mm post-CPAP, p < 0.05) but not untreated patients. These findings indicate the presence of a selective impairment in the detection of mechanical stimuli in the UA of patients with OSA and SN, which is partially reversible after treatment with nasal CPAP in patients with OSA.