Sleep Apnea
Last Edited: April 10th, 2012

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Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder with potentially dangerous consequences. It causes an interruption in breathing during sleep. If left untreated, apnea can stop someone’s breathing hundreds of times a night. As a result, the brain and body may not get enough oxygen. This can lead to heart problems and other health complications.


There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive, central and complex. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of the disorder. OSA occurs when throat muscles and tissues relax during sleep, and the airway becomes blocked.

Central sleep apnea is less common than OSA and does not result from a blocked airway. It occurs when the brain fails to send the right signals to the respiratory control center.

Some people experience complex sleep apnea, a combination of the other two types. Complex apnea often results from problems that emerge during treatment for one of the other forms.


The symptoms of OSA and central sleep apnea often overlap. This makes it hard to determine someone's specific apnea type. People with sleep apnea usually experience common symptoms: loud snoring, excessive sleepiness, shortness of breath, dry mouth, sore throat, morning headaches and insomnia.

Most people do not think of snoring as a sign of possible danger, and not everyone with sleep apnea snores. However, loud snoring may be a sign if it accompanies breathing pauses, abrupt awakenings and shallow breath. Extreme and persistent daytime drowsiness signals the need for medical attention.


Different types of sleep apnea have different causes. OSA occurs when the throat muscles relax and narrow or close the airway. Even momentary halts to breathing can lower the oxygen level in the blood.

Central sleep apnea has an entirely different cause. It occurs when the brain fails to send signals to the breathing muscles. Heart disease and, to a lesser extent, stroke are the most common causes of central sleep apnea.

Complex sleep apnea results from a blocked airway and brain signal disruptions. People with this rare form of apnea have problems with breathing effort and rhythm.

Risk Factors

Sleep apnea can affect anyone at any time. Children are as likely as adults to develop the disorder. Overweight, high blood pressure and neck circumference are contributing factors for obstructive apena, as are age and gender. OSA is more common in older men. Smoking, alcohol consumption and genetics are additional risk factors.

Heart disease, stroke and brain tumors are the top risk factors for central sleep apnea. As with OSA, this form of apnea occurs more often in older men than in younger men, women or children. Complex sleep apnea shares the same risk factors as the other apnea types.


Doctors use various therapies to treat sleep apnea. Lifestyle changes may be all that is needed for mild cases. Supplemental oxygen, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), bi-level positive airway pressure (BPAP) and oral devices open the airway, reduce snoring and relieve moderate apnea cases. Some people need surgery to remove the tonsils, adenoids, uvula and other tissues. Jaw reconstruction or a tracheostomy may be necessary for serious or life-threatening apnea.