Pharyngeal collapse in obstructive sleep apnea patients is likely a product of a sleep-related decrement in pharyngeal dilator muscle activity superimposed upon abnormal airway anatomy. We postulate that during wakefulness, increased pharyngeal dilator muscle activity in apnea patients compensates for diminished airway size thus maintaining patency. We studied the waking genioglossus (GG) electromyogram (EMG) activity in 11 OSA patients and 14 age-matched controls to determine if GG activity is higher in the awake state in apnea patients than controls. To make this determination, we developed a reproducible methodology whereby true maximal GG EMG could be defined and thus basal activity quantitated as a percentage of this maximal value. Therefore, direct comparisons of basal activity between individuals was possible. We observed apnea patients to have significantly greater basal genioglossal activity compared to controls (40.6 +/- 5.6% vs. 12.7 +/- 1.7% of maximum). This difference persisted when size-matched subsets were compared. This augmented GG activity in apnea patients could be reduced with positive airway pressure. We speculate that this neuromuscular compensation present during wakefulness in apnea patients may be lost during sleep leading to airway collapse.