Obstructive sleep apnea and chronic intermittent hypoxia: a review

Chin J Physiol. 2006 Oct 31;49(5):234-43.


Hypoxia is an important topic both physiologically and clinically. Traditionally, physiology research has been focusing on the effect of acute and chronic sustained hypoxia and human adaptive response to high altitude. In the past 20 years, genetic studies by many have expanded our understanding of hypoxia to the molecular level. However, in contrast to our extensive knowledge about acute and chronic sustained hypoxia, we know relatively little about the effect of chronic intermittent hypoxia (CIH). In recent years, CIH has attracted more research attention because of the increasing prevalence of obesity and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in the western countries. Clinically, CIH is commonly seen in patients with sleep-disordered breathing including OSA, Cheyne-Stokes respiration and nocturnal hypoventilation. It was estimated that for OSA of at least mild severity prevalence estimates range from 3 to 28% in the general population. OSA is characterized by recurrent upper airway collapse during sleep leading to intermittent nocturnal hypoxia and sleep fragmentation. OSA is associated with significant mortality and morbidity including neurocognitive dysfunction, hypertension, many cardiovascular disorders and metabolic disorders such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome. The intermittent hypoxia in OSA closely mimics what is seen in the ischemia-reperfusion injury. Experimentally, there is no universally accepted definition for CIH. Laboratory protocols vary greatly in duration of hypoxia exposure, numbers of hypoxia episodes per day and the total number of days of exposure. Despite the lack of a uniform definition, recent data suggest that CIH may lead to multiple long-term pathophysiologic consequences similar to what we see in patients with OSA. Recent evidences also demonstrate that there are remarkable differences in the response of the physiologic systems to sustained hypoxia and intermittent hypoxia. This review is aimed to briefly discuss the clinical significance of sleep-disordered breathing and our current understanding of CIH.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cardiovascular System / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / metabolism
  • Hypoxia / physiopathology*
  • Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / metabolism
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / physiopathology*