What causes sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is the result of obstruction or irregular brain signaling. The disease is characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep.

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), caused by soft tissue or structural obstructions that restrict air flow through the windpipe. For this reason, sleep apnea occurs most frequently in people who are obese.

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is much less common, and occurs due to the brain failing to signal the respiratory system to breathe. Heart disease and stroke are commonly associated with CSA. Similar to OSA, this disorder results in awaking with shortness of breath, snoring, and fatigue.

OSA causes of sleep apnea

Obesity is one obstructive cause of sleep apnea. Extra soft tissue (fat) can thicken the wall of the windpipe and narrow the opening, which makes it more difficult to keep open.

Other OSA causes of sleep apnea include:

  • Alcohol or drug use before bedtime
  • Large tongue and tonsils compared with the opening of the windpipe
  • Low soft palate
  • Shape of the head and neck that creates a smaller airway size
  • Throat muscles and tongue relax more than normal

CSA causes of sleep apnea

CSA causes of sleep apnea include any brain disorder or disease that decreases the brain’s signals to the respiratory system to breathe, as well as the aging process, which limits the ability of the brain signals to keep the throat muscles stiff during sleep. This increases the likelihood that the airway will narrow or collapse.

What are the risk factors for sleep apnea?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing sleep apnea. Not all people with risk factors will get sleep apnea. Risk factors for sleep apnea include:

  • Acromegaly
  • African American, Hispanic, and Pacific Islander race
  • Age over 40
  • Alcohol or sedative use
  • Excess weight
  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Male gender
  • Narrow airway
  • Nasal obstruction, such as polyps, deviated septum, etc
  • Neck circumference greater than 17 inches (or 43 centimeters)
  • Male gender
  • Smoking
  • Tonsillar hypertrophy in children

Reducing your risk of sleep apnea

You may be able to lower your risk of sleep apnea by:

  • Avoiding alcohol and sleeping medications
  • Avoiding driving or operating heavy machinery when feeling sleepy
  • Keeping nasal passages open
  • Losing excess weight
  • Sleeping on your side or on your stomach


What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is the name of a common disease characterized by interruption of breathing during sleep. This interruption of breathing causes an abnormal blood oxygen level, resulting in fatigue, as well as cardiovascular, cognitive and emotional disorders.

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in the United States. The disease is more common in men, African Americans, Hispanics, an... Read more about sleep apneaintroduction


What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea causes frequent drops in your oxygen level, and reduced sleep quality triggers the release of stress hormones. This raises your heart rate and increases your risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and arrhythmias (irregul... Read more about sleep apneasymptoms


How is sleep apnea treated?

Treatment for sleep apnea begins with seeking medical care from your health care provider. To determine if you have sleep apnea, your health care provider will ask you to undergo diagnostic testing.

The type of treatment for sleep apnea depends on cause and severity of the condition and medical history of the individual.

Main treatment for sleep apnea

The ... Read more about sleep apneatreatments

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Sep 30, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Lungs, Breathing and Respiration

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