Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome: What Is It?

June 26, 2020

Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome: What Is It?

Individuals don’t just wake up one morning with Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). Instead, this is a progressive disorder that often begins its journey from the benign act of snoring. 

When the causes of snoring get worse, this generally develops from a relatively harmless noise making to Sleep Apnea. But before it reaches this destination, it often first develops as upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS). 

Below, we discuss what upper airway resistance syndrome is, how to recognize the signs and how it differs from OSA.


What Is Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome? 

To fully understand what this sleep disorder is, we first need to remind ourselves what the act of snoring involves. 

Benign snoring is the sound that is created when air moves past relaxed tissues within the neck, which causes the tissues to vibrate and make the famous snoring noise. While it is a relatively common occurrence during sleep that is experienced by many Canadians each year, snoring causes can vary and some are more serious than others. 

The act of snoring itself is an indication that there is a form of resistance in the airway. If the cause of this resistance begins to increase, it increases the breathing effort needed to get past it. 

When snoring and airway resistance becomes enough to disrupt sleep quality, this is known as UARS. This condition generally indicates that snoring has progressed from being harmless to a more troublesome sleep disorder. Those that are diagnosed with UARS often note a decline in their sleep quality, struggles with insomnia and an increase in daytime sleepiness. 

However, it is important to note that these sleep disruptions caused by UARS often aren’t noticed by patients and don’t cause blood oxygen levels to drop.


What Are The Main Causes And Risk Factors Of UARS? 

Similar to Sleep Apnea, upper airway resistance syndrome can be caused by a narrowing of the airway passage and presence of loose fatty tissues within the throat. While not every UARS patient will audibly snore, many patients are noted as having heavy and laboured breathing while they sleep. Oftentimes, when speaking with a physician, a UARS patient compares the feeling of breathing at night as being similar to trying to blow air through a straw.

Due to the fact that the brain has to increase the respiratory effect in order to keep airways open during the night, this can impact an individual’s ability to carry out other normal activities the following day. This is why many UARS patients note feeling more fatigued and being unable to concentrate on a regular basis. 

This transitory sleep disorder is often triggered due to ageing when the muscle tone in the throat becomes less defined, due to weight gain which can put more pressure and resistance on the neck area and the third trimester of pregnancy. Many pregnant women have been known to develop UARS during the final few months of their pregnancy. 


How Does UARS Differ From Obstructive Sleep Apnea? 

Besides UARS being slightly less severe of a disorder than OSA, how else do these sleep disorders differ from each other? 

One of the key differences between these two conditions is the frequency at which apneas and hypopneas happen. In OSA, depending on the severity of your condition apneas (pauses in breathing) and hypopneas (decreases in breathing) can happen multiple times in an hour. Whereas, in UARS, these sleep disruptions are either very low or completely non-existent. 

Unlike OSA, UARS is not known to be linked to any other serious health conditions. As we have mentioned before, Sleep Apnea has been known to cause and worsen the symptoms of various conditions such as: 

  • Hypertension
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke 
  • Diabetes


What Are The Best Treatment Options Available For Upper Airway Resistance Syndrome? 

Fortunately, getting fast and prompt treatment can ensure that upper airway resistance syndrome doesn’t evolve into Obstructive Sleep Apnea. It is important that if you or a loved one notices that your snoring has become worse or that your breathing is heavier during sleep, that you seek advice from your physician as soon as possible. 

Upon diagnosis of UARS, many sleep specialists and physicians will often advise that you make some necessary lifestyle changes in order to improve your sleep quality. Generally, in this instance, CPAP therapy is considered as a last resort but has been known to be successful. 


Lifestyle Changes

Making sleep quality a priority is often one of the most highly recommended treatment options for UARS. This can be achieved by making the necessary lifestyle changes. 

Consider improving your sleep environment by removing digital screens. Incorporate more time for exercise into your daily routine. Eat healthily and avoid alcohol before going to bed. Making simple changes to improve sleep quality naturally can be very effective. 


Oral & Dental Appliances

Dental appliances are often recommended by physicians when treating UARS. Also, used in some cases of low to moderate OSA, a dental appliance is similar to that of a mouthguard and helps to move the jaw forward and keep the tongue in place while sleeping. This will decrease the chances of the tongue falling back and causing obstructions in the throat. 


CPAP Therapy 

Finally, if neither of the treatment options above is helpful in improving your sleep quality, your physician may prescribe you with CPAP therapy. Similar to the treatment of Sleep Apnea, CPAP therapy uses continuous positive airway pressure to keep the airways clear and unobstructed during the night to reduce snoring and sleep disturbances. 

For more information on sleep disorder, OSA read our Sleep Apnea guide. We urge anyone who thinks that their snoring is getting worse or causing you to wake up more during the night to go and get assessed by a physician. Without treatment, this transitional sleep disorder will develop into the more serious, Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

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