The causes of sleep apnea (also known as sleep apnoea) vary, according to which type of this common sleep disorder you have - obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, or mixed sleep apnea.
Causes of Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)
A blocked airway causes obstructive sleep apnea, though the obstruction may occur for different reasons. Enlarged tonsils, adenoids, and/or an oversized uvula (the soft tissue at the back of your throat) can create the obstruction. Or, sometimes weight gain can cause fat deposits to narrow your airways.
No matter which of the causes of sleep apnea is responsible for your blocked airways, the result is always the same - you're unable to breath through your nose or mouth during sleep. Essentially, you're suffocating.
Then, after a period of time (usually between 10 and 20 seconds - though it can be as long as a minute or more) oxygen deprivation forces you to wake up, often gasping for breath, choking, and snorting. This is the snoring that is so characteristic of OSA.
This cycle of momentary suffocation and awaking gasping for air, repeats itself over and over again from 20 to 60 times per hour, every night. This explains why people suffering from sleep apnea are chronically exhausted.
Along with recognizable causes of sleep apnea, research has identified certain risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea, which include the following.
Causes of Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)
In this less common form of sleep apnea, the cause is linked to the brain's failure to activate the body's mechanisms (nerves, muscles etc.) that control and regulate breathing.
Central sleep apnea usually occurs as a result, or in relation to, other medical conditions. In adults this may include certain chronic heart issues, brain stem injuries or disease, stroke, vascular conditions, and degenerative illnesses. It can also be caused by some medications or altitude changes.
In CSA, you don't hear the classic snoring, gasping, and choking sounds that accompany OSA. Rather, people with central sleep apnea have irregular breathing vs. no air passage at all.
Central sleep apnea can also occur in babies who are born prematurely, as their brains and reflexes are not fully developed. Most babies will outgrow this problem but need medical attention and monitoring to begin with.
Mixed Sleep Apnea
This third variation of sleep apnea presents as a mixture of both the above types. In most cases, symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea develop first, followed by those of central sleep apnea.
If you fit any of the high-risk categories, feel that a sleep apnea cause is present in your life, or think that you may be experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea, talk to your doctor about it right away.
There are many sleep apnea treatments available, which will not only improve your sleep, but could also save your life.