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Understanding the Different Types of Sleep Apnea

Man on a computer taking a sleep apnea quiz.

Pop quiz: How many different types of sleep apnea are there? This is a challenging question, because one of them is so much more common than the others that it tends to dominate the discussion. You may not have even heard of the other two—one of them wasn’t discovered until 2004.Now that we’ve all but given away the answer (three—the answer is three), let’s take an in-depth look at the different types of sleep apnea.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

diagram of obstructive sleep apnea

If you’re familiar with sleep apnea at all, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about obstructive sleep apnea, as it’s by far the most prevalent of the three different types.Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the throat muscles and tongue collapse into the airway during sleep, blocking airflow. This causes the individual to awaken abruptly for a few short seconds, gasping for air. Depending on the severity of the sleep apnea, this can happen anywhere from 5 to over 30 times per hour. As you can imagine, this doesn’t exactly allow for a good night’s sleep.Think you might have obstructive sleep apnea? Here are the telltale sleep apnea symptoms: snoring, waking up abruptly to the sensation of choking or gasping, excessive daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, waking up with a dry throat or mouth and restless sleep. Though obstructive sleep apnea can affect anyone, risk factors include being male, overweight and over the age of 40.   

Central Sleep Apnea

diagram of the human brain

Like obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea is characterized by interruptions in breathing during sleep. However, rather than being caused by a blockage in the airway, central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to properly signal the muscles that control breathing. You can think of it as a breakdown in communication within the body. It’s actually pretty scary, and often linked with a much more serious health problem.In most cases, central sleep apnea is the result of a medical condition or injury affecting the brain. Stroke, brain tumor, Parkinson’s disease and the use of narcotic painkillers are all common risk factors. Central sleep apnea symptoms are essentially the same as obstructive sleep apnea symptoms, though snoring can be less prevalent.

Complex Sleep Apnea

Aptly known as “mixed sleep apnea,” this type is—you guessed it!—a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Complex sleep apnea is more of a mystery than the other two types; there was no documented research until 2006, when Mayo Clinic conducted a study on the phenomenon.Mayo Clinic found that a significant number of obstructive sleep apnea patients were unable to breathe normally after receiving treatment to unblock their airways. “Their sleep apnea assumed the characteristics of central sleep apnea—the sleepers made no effort to breathe during apneic episodes, as if their brains were issuing no breathe command to the lungs,” reports the American Sleep Apnea Association.

How to Treat Sleep Apnea

diagram showing how CPAP machines keep airways open

No matter the type of sleep apnea, CPAP therapy is often the leading method of treatment. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy works by continuously blowing air through the airway to prevent it from collapsing.It’s easy enough to understand how this helps with obstructive sleep apnea. In the case of central sleep apnea, on the other hand, CPAP therapy may prevent the airway closure that can trigger central sleep apnea. Since central sleep apnea is typically linked with a medical problem, treatment may also include addressing the associated condition or administering medications to stimulate breathing.Complex sleep apnea, being such a newly discovered condition, is certainly trickier. While CPAP therapy administered at a low-pressure setting has been shown to help, BiPAP machines and Adaptive Servo Ventilation devices may also be used.   This is a lot of information to digest, but now that you’ve learned everything you never knew you needed to know about the different types of sleep apnea, you’ll be fully prepared for the next pop quiz!