Journal of Applied Physiology

Effect of hypoxia-induced periodic breathing on upper airway obstruction during sleep

G. Warner, J. B. Skatrud, J. A. Dempsey


We studied the effect of hypoxia-induced unstable and periodic breathing on the incidence of obstructed breaths in nine subjects who varied widely in their increase in total pulmonary resistance (RL) during non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep. During normoxic NREM sleep, all subjects showed hypoventilation, augmented diaphragmatic electromyogram (EMGdi), and increased RL. This response varied: two subjects doubled their mean RL (range 6–9 cmH2O X l–1 X s); four moderate snorers increased RL four- to eightfold (RL = 16–48 cmH2O X l–1 X s); three heavy snorers showed high RL (31–89 cmH2O X l–1 X s) plus cyclical obstructive hypopnea as their predominant breathing pattern. In seven of nine subjects, hypoxia and coincident hypocapnia initially caused an irregular cyclical breathing pattern with obstructed breaths (RL greater than 50 cmH2O X l–1 X s). The incidence of obstructed breaths induced by unstable breathing was closely correlated with the level of RL experienced in the control condition of normoxic sleep (r = 0.91). The obstructed breaths had relatively high O2 saturation (90–96%) and markedly reduced EMGdi activity and peak flow rate (less than 0.2 l/s) compared with breaths immediately after the obstructed breaths, which showed lower O2 saturation (81–93%) and markedly augmented EMGdi and flow rates. After 3–6 cycles of obstructive hypopnea, periodic breathing occurred in most subjects. During periodic breathing in six of seven subjects, the incidence of obstructed or high-resistance breaths was decreased or eliminated since each central apneic period was followed by breath clusters characterized by very high EMGdi, very low RL, and high flow rates. The remaining subject showed a high incidence of obstructed breaths during all phases of normoxic and hypoxic sleep. These data show that hypoxia-induced instability in breathing pattern can cause obstructed breaths during sleep coincident with reduced motor output to inspiratory muscles. However, this obstruction is only manifested in subjects susceptible to upper airway atonicity and narrowing (such as snorers) and can be prevented in most cases if respiratory drive is permitted to reach sufficiently high levels (as during central apnea).