We have observed patients who clinically have the obstructive sleep apnea syndrome but have no apneas, instead having recurrent nocturnal hypoventilation. There is disagreement about the definition and significance of such sleep-related hypopneas. We have thus analyzed breathing patterns, oxygenation and sleep records of 50 consecutive patients referred with the clinical features of the sleep apnea syndrome and found to have abnormal breathing during sleep to determine: (1) the best definition of hypopnea, and (2) how frequently patients have the clinical features of the sleep apnea syndrome without recurrent apneas. Hypopnea definitions based on decreases in thoracoabdominal movement yielded hypopnea frequencies that were significantly closer to desaturation and arousal frequencies than hypopnea definitions based on flow reduction. The best hypopnea definition was that of a 50% reduction in thoracoabdominal movement lasting for 10 s. This was validated in 33 normal subjects, all of whom had fewer than 11 hypopneas/h, and fewer than 14 apneas plus hypopneas/h of sleep. Thirty-two of the 50 patients had 10 or more apneas/h, the remaining 18 having 9 to 98 hypopneas/h such that all patients had more than 16 apneas plus hypopneas/h. Patients with recurrent hypopneas were clinically indistinguishable from and had a similar frequency of 4% desaturations (zero to 104/h) and arousals (7 to 98/h) to the patients with frequent apneas. This study confirms that hypopneas are clinically important and that the "sleep apnea syndrome" may occur in the absence of recurrent apneas.