Obesity hypoventilation syndrome (OHS) is a condition in some obese people in which poor breathing leads to lower oxygen and higher carbon dioxide levels in the blood.
The exact cause of OHS is not known. Doctors believe OHS results from a defect in the brain's control over breathing. Excess weight against the chest wall also makes it harder for the muscles to draw in a deep breath and to breathe quickly enough. As a result, the blood contains too much carbon dioxide and not enough oxygen.
Exams and Tests
People with OHS are usually very overweight. A physical exam may reveal:
- Bluish color in the lips, fingers, toes, or skin (cyanosis)
- Reddish skin
- Signs of right-sided heart failure (cor pulmonale), such as swollen legs or feet, shortness of breath, or feeling tired after little effort
- Signs of excessive sleepiness
Tests used to help diagnose and confirm OHS include:
- Arterial blood gas
- Chest x-ray or CT scan to rule out other possible causes
- Lung function tests (pulmonary function tests)
- Sleep study (polysomnography)
Doctors can tell OHS from obstructive sleep apnea because a person with OHS has a high carbon dioxide level in their blood when awake.
Treatment involves breathing assistance using special machines (mechanical ventilation). Options include:
- Noninvasive mechanical ventilation such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) through a mask that fits tightly over the nose or nose and mouth (mainly for sleep)
- Oxygen therapy
- Breathing help through an opening in the neck (tracheostomy) for severe cases.
Treatment is started in the hospital or as an outpatient.
Other treatments are aimed at weight loss, which can reverse OHS.
Untreated, OHS can lead to serious heart and blood vessel problems, severe disability, or death.
OHS complications related to a lack of sleep may include:
- Depression, agitation, irritability
- Increased risk of accidents or mistakes at work
- Problems with intimacy and sex
OHS can also cause heart problems, such as:
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if you are very tired during the day or have any other symptoms that suggest OHS.
Maintain a healthy weight and avoid obesity. Use your CPAP or BiPAP treatment as your provider prescribed.
Balachandran JS, Masa JF, Mokhlesi B. Obesity hypoventilation syndrome epidemiology and diagnosis. Sleep Med Clin. 2014;9:341–347. PMC4210766 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4210766/.
Malhotra A, Powell F. Disorders of ventilatory control. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 86.
Update Date 8/11/2015
Updated by: Denis Hadjiliadis, MD, MHS, Associate Professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.