Anatomy of pharynx in patients with obstructive sleep apnea and in normal subjects

J Appl Physiol (1985). 1997 Apr;82(4):1319-26. doi: 10.1152/jappl.1997.82.4.1319.


Anatomic abnormalities of the pharynx are thought to play a role in the pathogenesis of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), but their contribution has never been conclusively proven. The present study tested this anatomic hypothesis by comparing the mechanics of the paralyzed pharynx in OSA patients and in normal subjects. According to evaluation of sleep-disordered breathing (SDB) by nocturnal oximetry, subjects were divided into three groups: normal group (n = 17), SDB-1 (n = 18), and SDB-2 (n = 22). The static pressure-area relationship of the passive pharynx was quantified under general anesthesia with complete paralysis. Age and body mass index were matched among the three groups. The site of the primary closure was the velopharynx in 49 subjects and the oropharynx in only 8 subjects. Distribution of the location of the primary closure did not differ among the groups. Closing pressure (PC) of the velopharynx for SDB-1 and SDB-2 groups (0.90 +/- 1.34 and 2.78 +/- 2.78 cmH2O, respectively) was significantly higher than that for the normal group (-3.77 +/- 3.44 cmH2O; P < 0.01). Maximal velopharyngeal area for the normal group (2.10 +/- 0.85 cm2) was significantly greater than for SDB-1 and SDB-2 groups (1.15 +/- 0.46 and 1.06 +/- 0.75 cm2, respectively). The shape of the pressure-area curve for the velopharynx differed between normal subjects and patients with SDB, being steeper in slope near Pc in patients with SDB. Multivariate analysis of mechanical parameters and oxygen desaturation index (ODI) revealed that velopharyngeal Pc was the only variable highly correlated with ODI. Velopharyngeal Pc was associated with oropharyngeal Pc, suggesting mechanical interdependence of these segments. We conclude that the passive pharynx is more narrow and collapsible in sleep-apneic patients than in matched controls and that velopharyngeal Pc is the principal correlate of the frequency of nocturnal desaturations.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Air Pressure
  • Anesthesia, General
  • Body Mass Index
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Laryngoscopy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Oropharynx / pathology
  • Oximetry
  • Pharynx / pathology*
  • Regression Analysis
  • Sleep Apnea Syndromes / pathology*