Neck Circumference and Sleep Apnea: Do They Relate?

There are many physical conditions which can lead to the onset of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). 

Some common issues include obesity, a genetic predisposition, smoking cigarettes, and an excessive use of alcohol. 

However, another variable that can sometimes play a critical role involves the physical dimensions of the neck. 

Did you know that neck circumference may impact your chances of developing obstructive sleep apnea? Let us first take a look at why this physical factor is important before briefly discussing the cutting-edge treatment options that you can access. 

The Physical Causes of OSA

The root cause of OSA is associated with narrowing of the airways during sleep. As a result, the body is challenged to obtain the oxygen that it requires to function properly. 

This causes the autonomic nervous system to kick in, resulting in snoring, coughing and even waking up with the sensation that you are out of breath. 

There are a host of variables that can lead to the development of this condition. Obesity plays a role, and it’s important to lose weight. 

The circumference of your neck is also vital to address if we hope to appreciate the "big picture". How can neck circumference impact the severity of sleep apnea symptoms?

The Impact of Neck Circumference

One issue with neck size is how it relates to your esophagus. Larger necks are often associated with narrower airways. Therefore, breathing can become difficult when the nearby muscles are relaxed (such as during sleep). 

Some common symptoms of a narrowed airway include coughing, wheezing or snoring. There can also be times when the airway completely closes. These are known as "central" or "obstructive" events. 

In such scenarios, individuals will suddenly awake and find that they are gasping for air. Not that not everyone who suffers from sleep apnea will experience this degree of severity.

Fat deposits that are located near and around the airway are also a factor. Thicker necks tend to be prone to higher concentrations of fat. Once again, these deposits can place pressure on the walls of the airway. This normally occurs when laying down in bed, as gravity will further exacerbate the symptoms. 

Interestingly enough, the very same mechanics associated with fat deposits can be correlated with a large amount of muscle around the neck. 

This may sometimes occur with bodybuilders or individuals who take human growth hormone (HGH) to gain lean muscle mass. When these muscle fibers relax, the airways can once again be negatively affected. 

Neck Circumference: How Large is Too Large?

Keep in mind that some individuals with larger necks may not ever be diagnosed with OSA. There are nonetheless a handful of guidelines which have been put forth by the medical community based on gender. Here are the dimensions that experts feel will increase the chances of developing OSA:

  • Circumferences of 17 inches or more for men.
  • Circumferences of 16 inches or more for women.

Also, those who have already been diagnosed with comorbid conditions (such as a family history of OSA or obesity) are at a higher risk of suffering from OSA -- especially if their neck circumference meets or exceeds the dimensions outlined above.

Signs that You May be Suffering from Sleep Apnea

We have already highlighted some of the most common physical symptoms of OSA. However, there are some additional scenarios that can be a bit more tricky to diagnose. Here are a handful of examples to keep in mind:

  • Waking up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason.
  • Constant headaches in the morning.
  • Feelings of lethargy or malaise throughout the day.
  • A dry mouth, nose or throat.
  • Finding it difficult to pay attention at work or to maintain prolonged periods of concentration.

Although these are often correlated with poor sleeping habits, they can likewise serve as indicators that a clinical condition exists. This is why seeking a professional diagnosis sooner than later is always wise. 

Treatment Options and Prognosis

Unfortunately, neck circumference is a variable that cannot be easily controlled by most individuals. While lifestyle habits such as exercising and eating the right foods may help you to lose weight, genetics are less than forgiving. 

The good news is that advanced treatment options will often be able to provide you with the relief that you have been desperately looking for. 

One common solution involves the use of a CPAP machine. CPAP is an acronym for continuous positive airway pressure. These units consist of a facemask, a plastic tube and a motor that provides a constant supply of slightly pressurized air while you sleep. 

This increased air pressure will help to ensure that your throat remains open. There are also additional CPAP accessories such as built-in humidifiers that can be used if you suffer from a dry mouth. 

Is it time to get tested for sleep apnea?

If you feel that sleep apnea is causing issues, it is first prudent to obtain a diagnosis from a trained sleep specialist. He or she will evaluate your symptoms and may even recommend that you participate in an overnight sleep study. This helps to determine whether or not obstructive sleep apnea is the primary culprit. 

Most individuals who are diagnosed with OSA can effectively treat the symptoms with the help of expert intervention alongside modern technology. 

While it might not be realistic to change the circumference of your neck, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy a restful night of sleep. Be sure to speak with your primary care physician to learn more or if additional advice is required.