Causes of sleep apnea

Causes of sleep apnea

Sleep apnea occurs primarily for two reasons: airway obstruction or a disconnect between the brain and the body. The most common type is airway obstruction, leading to symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

When there is a disconnect between the brain and body, it results in central sleep apnea. Some individuals may experience a combination of both, known as mixed or complex sleep apnea.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea

    When you go to sleep, your throat and tongue muscles relax. This can cause the soft tissue in your mouth and throat to fall back and block your airway. Blocked nasal passages can also contribute to the problem. This obstruction prevents proper breathing, causing your oxygen levels to drop.

    After about 10 seconds, your brain detects the low oxygen level and signals your body to wake up and take a breath. This process also causes a spike in your blood pressure.

    This cycle can repeat many times throughout the night without you even noticing.

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  • Central sleep apnea

    With central sleep apnea, your airway isn't obstructed, but your brain isn't sending the usual signals to your body to breathe.

    Your breathing stops for 10 seconds or more. During this time, your body makes no effort to breathe.

    With central sleep apnea, it's quite likely that you don't snore.

    Central sleep apnea can be caused by certain prescription painkillers, high altitude, or medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, infections, or neurological diseases.

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Obstructive sleep apnea causes

  • Back sleeping: This position can cause the relaxed muscles in your mouth and tongue to restrict your breathing.

  • Thick uvula: The uvula, a tissue that hangs from the top of your mouth, can slip back and obstruct your breathing when you sleep.

  • Large tonsils and adenoids: These can restrict your airway and cause obstructive sleep apnea.

  • Tiredness: When you are overly tired, your muscles relax more, contributing to obstructive sleep apnea.

  • Allergies and infections: Conditions like hay fever, colds, sinus infections, and flu can block your nasal passages and contribute to sleep apnea.

  • Obesity: Extra fatty tissue around the neck can increase airway restriction during sleep.

Central sleep apnea causes

  • Breathing reflex: Long-term obstructive sleep apnea can dull the breathing reflex.

  • Slow blood circulation: This can impact normal breathing reflexes.

  • Pain medications: Drugs like morphine can reduce your urge to breathe.

  • Stroke: Conditions affecting the brain's breathing control center can cause sleep apnea.

  • Weak lung: Neuromuscular disorders can weaken the muscles needed for breathing.

  • Chest or lung abnormalities: Structural issues can cause your lungs to be too stiff, affecting breathing.

  • High altitude: Some people experience central sleep apnea at high altitudes.