Nocturnal sleep studies of 12 patients with obstructive sleep apnea and a matched control group of 12 subjects without the sleep apnea syndrome were analyzed to compare arterial oxyhemoglobin saturation (SaO2) during REM and non-REM sleep. Mean percentage of total sleep time spent in REM sleep was not significantly different in patients with obstructive sleep apnea and in subjects without significant apnea (14.2 +/- SEM 2.2 percent in patients vs 12.0 +/- 2.2 percent in nonapnea subjects). Apneas were longer during REM than non-REM sleep in all 12 patients (p less than 0.01). Oxyhemoglobin desaturations were more frequent during REM than non-REM sleep in both apnea patients and the control subjects. In addition, there was a greater mean fall in SaO2 per desaturation episode in both the apnea patients and non-apnea subjects. We conclude: 1) sleep apneas are longer during REM sleep than non-REM sleep in patients with obstructive sleep apnea; 2) hypoxemia is greater during REM sleep than non-REM sleep in subjects with and without the sleep apnea syndrome.