The Causes of Sleep Apnea
Did you know that several types of sleep apnea exist and that each type is caused by different factors? This post explains the disorder in detail.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a disorder in which people temporarily stop breathing while they sleep. Breathing pauses can last a few seconds or a few minutes and may occur more than 30 times an hour. Sleep apnea is usually a chronic condition that disturbs people’s sleep and affects their day-to-day life. Consequently, poor quality of sleep due to sleep apnea is the leading cause of daytime drowsiness. The disorder often goes undiagnosed, as no blood test can detect it and most people don’t realize they have it because they’re asleep when it occurs.
What Causes It?
There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), central sleep apnea (CSA), and complex sleep apnea.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common. It is caused by soft tissue in the back of the throat relaxing more than normal. As a person sleeps, the relaxed tissue narrows and blocks the airway. This usually causes loud snoring and might even lower the person’s blood-oxygen level. When the brain senses its inability to take in oxygen, it sends a signal to the body to briefly wake up in order to re-open the airway. However, this period is usually so short that most people don’t remember it in the morning.
Central sleep apnea (CSA) is less common and doesn’t typically involve snoring. It’s caused by the central nervous system and occurs when the brain doesn’t properly communicate with the muscles that regulate breathing. Affected people might have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep due to the problem; however, unlike OSA, people with CSA often remember waking up. Heart failure and stroke often cause this malfunction.
Complex sleep apnea is a mixture of both OSA and CSA. That is, it is caused by a combination of the central nervous system not communicating properly and soft tissue relaxing and blocking one’s airway.
Other causes of sleep apnea include aging, being overweight, and having a small neck:
- when people age, the signals sent to their brain change and might limit their ability to maintain firm throat muscles during sleep;
- obesity causes more fat tissue to push against a person’s windpipe, which makes it more difficult for the pipe to stay open;
- finally, a bony structure gives rise to a smaller airway, which is also difficult to keep open during sleep.
Sleep apnea requires long-term management. If left untreated, it can increase the risk of heart attacks and heart failure, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, strokes, and arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat). It may also cause car accidents and work-related incidents, since its symptoms can cause a person to become drowsy and distracted.
Therefore, if you suspect that you or someone you know has sleep apnea, you should talk to a doctor immediately and get tested. The sooner you are treated, the better.