Understanding Sleep Apnea: Causes and Treatment

Apr 7, 2024

Sleep apnea is a prevalent yet often undiagnosed sleep disorder that affects millions worldwide. It’s characterized by pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while sleeping. These interruptions can last from a few seconds to minutes and may occur 30 times or more an hour. This condition can lead to a fragmented sleep pattern, depriving sufferers of deep, restorative sleep and leading to excessive daytime sleepiness and other health issues. Understanding the causes and exploring effective treatments can vastly improve the quality of life for those affected by sleep apnea.

Types of Sleep Apnea

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

The most common form, OSA, occurs when throat muscles intermittently relax and block the airway during sleep. Factors such as obesity, anatomic variations, and certain genetic conditions can increase the risk of OSA.

Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)

CSA involves the central nervous system and occurs when the brain fails to send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing. This form of sleep apnea can be associated with other conditions, such as heart failure and stroke.

Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome

Also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, it occurs when someone has both OSA and CSA.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Recognizing the symptoms of sleep apnea is crucial for early diagnosis and treatment. Symptoms can vary depending on the type of sleep apnea (OSA, CSA, or Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome). Still, there are common signs that could indicate the presence of the disorder. Here are the most frequently reported symptoms:

Some of the most common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Loud snoring: Though snoring can be common and not always indicative of sleep apnea, loud and persistent snoring is a hallmark of obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Episodes of stopped breathing during sleep: Often reported by another person, these episodes are periods where breathing stops for a few seconds to minutes.
  • Gasping for air during sleep: Abrupt awakenings accompanied by gasping or choking are signs that your body struggles to breathe correctly.
  • Morning headache: Frequently waking with a headache can be a sign of sleep apnea, which is caused by oxygen changes during the night.
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness: If you feel drowsy or fall asleep easily during the day despite spending enough time in bed, it might be a symptom of sleep apnea.
  • Difficulty concentrating: Sleep apnea can lead to fragmented sleep, affecting your ability to focus or concentrate during the day.
  • Irritability: Mood changes, such as irritability or depression, can be linked to the lack of restful sleep.
  • High blood pressure: Ongoing struggles with high blood pressure can be related to sleep apnea’s strain on your cardiovascular system.
  • Decreased libido: A decrease in sexual desire or function might be associated with the sleep disturbances caused by sleep apnea.
  • Insomnia or nighttime awakenings: Trouble staying asleep or significant disturbances in your sleep pattern could be signs of sleep apnea.
  • Symptoms More Specific to CSA
  • Unusual breathing patterns during sleep: CSA might be indicated by more erratic breathing patterns rather than just the cessation of breathing.
  • Shortness of breath that awakens you from sleep: Unlike OSA, which is more likely to cause awakenings due to choking or gasping, CSA can cause awakenings because of a feeling of shortness of breath.
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep (insomnia): CSA can cause significant sleep initiation and maintenance problems.

Not everyone who snores has sleep apnea and not everyone with sleep apnea snores. Recognizing these symptoms early and seeking appropriate treatment can mitigate the health risks associated with sleep apnea and significantly improve one’s quality of life.

Causes and Risk Factors

While the causes can vary by the type of sleep apnea, several risk factors are commonly associated with the disorder:

  • Excess weight: Obesity greatly increases the risk of sleep apnea. Fat deposits around the upper airway can obstruct breathing.
  • Neck circumference: People with thicker necks might have narrower airways, making them more susceptible to obstruction.
  • A narrowed airway: An inherited narrow throat, enlarged tonsils, or adenoids can block the airway, especially in children.
  • Being male: Men are two to three times more likely to have sleep apnea than women. However, the risk for women increases if they are overweight, and it also seems to rise after menopause.
  • Age: Sleep apnea occurs more frequently in older adults.
  • Family history: Having family members with sleep apnea might increase your risk.
  • Use of alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers: These substances relax the muscles in your throat, which can worsen obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Smoking: Smokers are three times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than are people who’ve never smoked.

Treatment Options

Treatment for sleep apnea can vary depending on the severity of the disorder and the underlying cause. Here are some of the most common treatment options:

Lifestyle Changes

For mild cases of sleep apnea, lifestyle changes such as losing weight, quitting smoking, and avoiding alcohol and sleeping pills can be enough to relieve symptoms.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)

The most common and effective treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea is a CPAP machine. This device keeps the airway open by providing a constant stream of air through a mask worn during sleep.

Oral Appliances

Dental devices that adjust the lower jaw and tongue position have been effective for some people with mild to moderate OSA.


In cases where other treatments have failed, and there is a clear anatomical cause for the apnea, surgery might be an option. Procedures can range from tonsillectomy uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (removing soft tissue from the back of the throat), to more complex surgeries involving jaw reconstruction.

Positional Therapy

For some, sleep apnea is significantly worse when sleeping on the back. In such cases, positional therapy, which involves wearing a special device that keeps you sleeping on the side, can help.

Use of Supplemental Oxygen

Supplemental oxygen can help ensure the body gets the oxygen it needs during sleep in cases of central sleep apnea.

Understanding sleep apnea and its potential health implications is crucial. If you suspect you or a loved one might be suffering from this condition, it’s essential to seek professional medical advice. With the right diagnosis and treatment, sleep apnea can be managed effectively, and you can enjoy a healthier, more restful night’s sleep. Contact us today to learn more.