Sleep Apnea (Central)

What is Sleep Apnea?

Overview/Description

When a person has sleep apnea, he or she has recurrent periods where his or her breathing becomes extremely shallow or even stops during sleep. There are different types of sleep apnea, one of which is called central sleep apnea.

Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain doesn’t fire the correct signals to muscles involved in inhalation and exhalation. While this kind of sleep apnea is not as common as other types—like obstructive sleep apnea—it can affect those taking certain medications and those with certain illnesses or conditions.

For instance, drugs like codeine and morphine can trigger symptoms of central sleep apnea. If a person has a condition like encephalitis, congestive heart failure, spinal arthritis, or any deterioration of the nervous system, then he or she could develop central sleep apnea.

What are the Symptoms of Sleep Apnea?

Central sleep apnea can cause people to experience insomnia, because the lack of oxygen and shallow breathing may cause them to wake up periodically in the middle of the night. Some people also snore loudly or make snorting sounds when they aren’t getting enough oxygen.

Other symptoms include daytime fatigue, difficulty remembering things, and difficulty doing everyday tasks—like driving—without getting drowsy or falling asleep. Because central sleep apnea is often concurrent with neurological condition, a person may also have symptoms like swallowing difficulties, voice or speech pattern changes, or muscle weakness.

Sleep Apnea Causes

There are numerous causes of sleep apnea. Excessive weight and obesity is one of the main causes of this problem, because the excess body fat places a strain on throat muscles and can cause breathing difficulties. Gender is another cause, for unknown reasons – sleep apnea occurs more in men, though the menopause in women can also trigger it. It’s also caused by age – people over 40 are more likely to get the condition.

Physiology can be another cause. Having a large neck (bigger than 43cm/17 inches) or an unusual structure of the inner neck, for example narrow airways or large tonsils, can increase the risk of developing sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea can also be due to brain signals misfiring or failing to transmit.

Taking sedatives, drinking alcohol and smoking can also cause sleep apnea. Nasal congestion conditions, such as having a deviated septum or nasal polyps, can cause sleep apnea.

Genetics and a family history of sleep apnea can also increase your susceptibility to the condition and help cause it.

How is Sleep Apnea Treated?

To diagnose central sleep apnea, a person will need to take a polysomnography, which is a test that measures vital functions while a person stays overnight in a sleep center. If it is determined that a patient has central sleep apnea, then the cause must be determined. If certain medications, like painkillers, are causing the problem, then the patient may need to consult with his or her doctor to find an alternative drug. If the central sleep apnea is caused by an illness, then neurologists, cardiologists, and other specialists may need to be consulted on how to manage symptoms.

Non-invasive devices can be worn while sleeping to treat sleep apnea. For instance, “bilevel positive airway pressure” (BPAP), “continuous positive airway pressure” (CPAP), and “adapto servo ventilation” (ASV) machines have masks that patients can wear at night so their breathing is regulated.

Sleep Apnea Prevention

Fortunately, as there are many well known causes of sleep apnea, this makes it relatively easy to prevent. For example, avoid the use of alcohol and medicines which might relax the throat muscles and slow breathing, such as sleeping pills and other sedatives.

As obesity is the main cause of sleep apnea, losing weight if you are obese or overweight is likely the best course of action. Eating a regulated diet with an eye on weight gain and avoiding obesity is another good way to keep everything in check. Smoking cigarettes can allow the nicotine found in the tobacco to relax those same muscles as well, so quitting smoking is one of the top ways to try and prevent sleep apnea at night.

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Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
November 08, 2017