Understanding Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Hypopnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleeping disorder characterized by periods of interrupted breathing. This can lead to disturbed sleep, incessant snoring, tired throughout the day, with trouble concentrating – and difficulty staying awake. 

The symptoms of OSA may be mild in nature or severe, causing profound health effects over time if left untreated – including heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

One of the issues here is that those who might have been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea are likely to come across many confusing terms. 

Hypopnea is a prime example. What is the relationship between hypopnea and OSA? How might this impact your treatment options? Let's break this topic down to obtain a much-needed sense of clarity as well as to understand what treatments are available. 

What Exactly is Hypopnea?

This condition is defined as an instance when the volume of air reaching your lungs becomes reduced. Hypopneas can be caused by two conditions:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (a narrowing of the airways during the overnight hours).
  • Central sleep apnea (an interruption of the signals sent between the brain and the respiratory system).

Hypopneas are often diagnosed based upon these parameters:

  • A reduction in airflow for more than ten seconds.
  • Ventilation reduced by 30%
  • Less oxygen in the bloodstream

Note that any one of these situations could signal a hypopnea. As you also might have imagined, the best way to obtain an accurate diagnosis is to consult a trained sleep specialist.

The Difference Between Hypopnea and Apnea

Now that we have examined the basics, an extremely important topic needs to be discussed. What is the difference between hypopneas and obstructive sleep apnea? 

The main point here involves the severity of the episode. 

Hypopneas are associated with a reduction in airflow within a given period of time. Sleep apnea is instead defined as a situation when breathing is completely interrupted (such as if the airway becomes entirely blocked). 

However, hypopneas are still associated with OSA because they also cause a reduction in the amount of oxygen that your body is able to obtain. They likewise lead to interruptions in sleeping patterns. Snoring can occur during hypopnea since it’s a reduction of flow but not complete obstruction.

What Factors Can Increase the Chances of Developing This Condition

Hypopneas can result from a number of unique scenarios. These often include:

  • The circumference of your neck
  • General obesity
  • Smoking
  • Congestion (such as may occur with a cold or a respiratory infection)
  • The excessive consumption of alcohol
  • Age
  • Sedatives
  • In some cases, genetics

Simply stated, obstructive sleep apnea and hypopnea share many of the same root causes in common. 

Warning Signs that an Issue May be Present

A sleep specialist will normally look for a handful of "red flags" when diagnosing OSA. Some of the potential symptoms can include:

  • Feelings of lethargy throughout the day for no apparent reason.
  • Broken sleep patterns that last for more than four weeks.
  • Waking up choking or gasping for breath.
  • Excessive snoring that may be loud enough to awaken your partner.
  • Morning headaches.

However, note that a single symptom might not necessarily lead to a diagnosis of OSA. In many instances, more than one will have to be present for this diagnosis.  

How are Hypopneas Treated?

As obstructive sleep apnea and hypopnea share many of the same symptoms in common, their treatment options are likewise similar. 

This often depends on the severity of your condition based on the apnea-hypopnea index (a clinical measurement used to gauge how many episodes occur per hour). 

An AHI of over 30 indicates a severe case and will require some type of medical intervention. 

You will still be happy to know that modern medicine now provides a kaleidoscope of effective treatment options. One predominant method involves the use of a PAP (positive airway pressure) device while sleeping. This unit consists of a compressor, a hose and a face mask. 

A PAP device will provide air to your nose and mouth at a slightly higher pressure; reducing the chances that your airways narrow or become completely blocked (as would otherwise occur with an apnea or hypopnea event). 

There are many types of PAPs available and the top-rated brands can be customized in accordance with user preferences. 

The air pressure is delivered to the body from the use of a mask that is worn during the night. This may be a nasal, pillow or full face mask, and allows the pressurized air to enter the airways, so they stay open during the night. 

Lifestyle Changes to Keep in Mind

Managing hypopneas and apneas should also take into account lifestyle modifications. There are several ways in which you may be able to lessen the severity of these episodes. Experts recommend changes such as:

  • Losing weight
  • Adopting a balanced diet
  • Eliminating bad habits such as smoking and drinking alcohol
  • Exercising on a regular basis
  • Modifying your sleeping position
  • Abstaining from over-the-counter sedatives

If you only experience mild OSA symptoms, these approaches could very well eliminate the associated symptoms. However, it is still crucial to speak with  your primary care doctor and/or a sleep specialist. He or she will provide a clear diagnosis and as a result, you can avoid incessantly counting sheep and instead obtain the rest that you have been hoping for.


  1. https://www.healthline.com/health/hypopnea
  2. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/obstructive-sleep-apnea
  3. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-dangers-of-uncontrolled-sleep-apnea