Sleep apnea is a very common disorder that causes pauses in breathing or shallow breathing during sleep. It is usually a chronic condition that results in poor sleep quality and tiredness throughout the day, and can lead to long-term health problems if left untreated. To learn what happens to your airway passages during periods of sleep apnea, visit the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s website for details and a brief video.

There are two types of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), the most common type, and central sleep apnea. It is also possible to have mixed, or complex sleep apnea, which is a combination of both types. Visit the American Sleep Apnea Association’s page for more information on the subject.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by complete or partial blockage of the upper airway during sleep. This blockage can be caused by enlarged tonsils, too much tissue at the back of the throat, a large tongue or a deviated septum.

Most people who have OSA do not notice anything is amiss, and their bed partner notices the signs, which can include:

  • Snoring
  • Shallow or no breathing at times
  • Resuming breath with a loud gasp, snort or body jerk

The treatment for OSA will vary on the severity and cause of the disorder. Visit the Lung Library on our website to learn more about treatment.

Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea is caused by the brain failing to signal the muscles to breath. This type of sleep apnea is generally associated with a serious illness that affects the lower brainstem, which controls breathing.

Associated conditions or illnesses can include:

  • Neurological diseases, like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s
  • Damage to the brainstem from a stroke or injury
  • Kidney failure
  • Congestive heart failure

Unlike OSA, central sleep apnea is not usually associated with snoring, though other symptoms of the disorder are similar, including fatigue during the day, headaches in the morning and difficulty concentrating.

The treatment of central sleep apnea depends if it is associated with another condition or not, if it is, that condition will be treated. Otherwise, treatment options are similar to OSA.