Understanding the anatomic basis for obstructive sleep apnea syndrome in adolescents

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2015 Jun 1;191(11):1295-309. doi: 10.1164/rccm.201501-0169OC.


Rationale: Structural risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS) in adolescents have not been well characterized. Because many adolescents with OSAS are obese, we hypothesized that the anatomic OSAS risk factors would be more similar to those in adults than those in children.

Objectives: To investigate the anatomic risk factors in adolescents with OSAS compared with obese and lean control subjects using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Methods: Three groups of adolescents (age range: 12-16 yr) underwent MRI: obese individuals with OSAS (n = 49), obese control subjects (n = 38), and lean control subjects (n = 50).

Measurements and main results: We studied 137 subjects and found that (1) obese adolescents with OSAS had increased adenotonsillar tissue compared with obese and lean control subjects; (2) obese OSAS adolescents had a smaller nasopharyngeal airway than control subjects; (3) the size of other upper airway soft tissue structures (volume of the tongue, parapharyngeal fat pads, lateral walls, and soft palate) was similar between subjects with OSAS and obese control subjects; (4) although there were no major craniofacial abnormalities in most of the adolescents with OSAS, the ratio of soft tissue to craniofacial space surrounding the airway was increased; and (5) there were sex differences in the pattern of lymphoid proliferation.

Conclusions: Increased size of the pharyngeal lymphoid tissue, rather than enlargement of the upper airway soft tissue structures, is the primary anatomic risk factor for OSAS in obese adolescents. These results are important for clinical decision making and suggest that adenotonsillectomy should be considered as the initial treatment for OSAS in obese adolescents, a group that has poor continuous positive airway pressure adherence and difficulty in achieving weight loss.

Keywords: MRI; adenoid; adolescents; obstructive sleep apnea syndrome; tonsils.

Publication types

  • Controlled Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adenoids / anatomy & histology
  • Adipose Tissue / anatomy & histology
  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lymphoid Tissue / anatomy & histology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Nasopharynx / anatomy & histology
  • Obesity / complications*
  • Palate, Soft / anatomy & histology
  • Palatine Tonsil / anatomy & histology
  • Pharynx / pathology*
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Factors
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / etiology*
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / pathology*
  • Tongue / anatomy & histology