[Physiopathology of obstructive sleep apneas]

Rev Mal Respir. 1989;6(5):397-407.
[Article in French]


The syndrome of obstructive sleep apnoea is associated with an increased morbidity (the consequence of diurnal hypersomnolence and cardiovascular complications). The contraction of the dilator muscles of the upper airways (nose and pharynx) allows their patency at the time of inspiration. The obstruction of the airways resulted in a disequilibrium between the forces which tend to their collapse (negative inspiratory transpharyngeal pressure gradient) and those which contribute to their opening (muscle contraction). The mechanisms which underlie the triggering of obstructive apnoea are multiple including a reduction in the calibre of the superior airways, an increase in their compliance, and a reduction in the activity of the muscle dilators. This latter is intimately linked to the respiratory muscles and these muscles respond in a similar manner to a stimulation or a depression of the respiratory centre. The ventilatory fluctuations observed during sleep (alternately hyper and hypo ventilation of periodic respiration) thus favours an instability of the superior airways and the occurrence of oropharyngeal obstruction. The depth of post-apnoeic desaturation depends on the value of the arterial oxygen saturation at the beginning of apnoea, the duration of the period of apnoea and the pulmonary volume as the period of apnoea passes off. The cardiovascular consequences of apnoea include disorders of rhythm (bradycardia, auriculoventricular block, ventricular extrasystoles) and haemodynamic (pulmonary and systemic hypertension). This results in a stimulatory metabolic and mechanical effect on the autonomic nervous system. The electroencephalographic awakening which precedes the easing of obstruction of the upper airways is responsible for the fragmentation of sleep. The factors implicated in the cessation of the apnoea include hypoxia and hypercapnia but one also invokes a role for the negative pressure generated during the course of the apnoea.

Publication types

  • English Abstract
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Airway Resistance
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / etiology
  • Diaphragm / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Pharynx / physiopathology
  • Respiratory Center / physiology
  • Sleep Apnea Syndromes / complications
  • Sleep Apnea Syndromes / etiology
  • Sleep Apnea Syndromes / physiopathology*