The impact of pharyngeal fat tissue on the pathogenesis of obstructive sleep apnea

Sleep Breath. 2014 May;18(2):275-82. doi: 10.1007/s11325-013-0878-4. Epub 2013 Jul 23.


Purpose: Obesity is the most important risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA); however, the exact underlying mechanisms are still not fully understood. The aim of this study was to examine the morphology of upper airways in overweight habitual snorers and in mild OSA patients. Furthermore, the associations between weight loss, parapharyngeal fat pad area and OSA were assessed in a 1-year randomised, controlled follow-up study originally conducted to determine the effects of lifestyle changes with weight reduction as a treatment of OSA.

Methods: Thirty-six overweight adult patients with mild OSA [apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) 5-15 events/h] and 24 weight-matched habitual snorers (AHI < 5 events/h) were included in the study. All patients underwent nocturnal cardiorespiratory recordings and multislice computed tomography (CT) of parapharyngeal fat pad area, the smallest diameter and area in naso-, oro- and hypopharynx, the smallest diameter and area of the whole pharyngeal airway, the distance from the hyoid bone to the mandibular plane and to cervical tangent as well as the distance between mandibular symphysis and cervical spine. In addition, OSA patients were further randomised to receive either an active 1-year lifestyle intervention with an early weight loss programme or routine lifestyle counselling. After 1 year, the cardiorespiratory recordings and CT scans were repeated.

Results: The pharyngeal fat pad area was significantly larger, and the distance from the hyoid bone to cervical spine was longer in patients with OSA than in habitual snorers (p = 0.002 and p = 0.018, respectively). The multiple regression analysis showed that besides a large pharyngeal fat pad area and a long distance from the cervical spine to hyoid bone, also a short distance from the mandibular symphysis to cervical tangent increased a risk to OSA. During the 1-year follow-up in OSA patients, the pharyngeal fat pad area and AHI decreased significantly in the intervention group (p = 0.003 and p < 0.001, respectively).

Conclusions: In the early stages of OSA, the pharyngeal fat pad seems to play an important role in the development of disease in overweight patients. Furthermore, weight reduction by lifestyle intervention-based programme reduces both central obesity and pharyngeal fat pads, resulting in an improvement of OSA.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / pathology*
  • Adult
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Hyoid Bone / pathology
  • Hypopharynx / pathology
  • Life Style
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multidetector Computed Tomography
  • Nasopharynx / pathology
  • Oropharynx / pathology
  • Overweight / pathology
  • Pharynx / pathology*
  • Polysomnography
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / pathology*
  • Snoring / pathology
  • Weight Loss / physiology