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Understanding the Different Types of Sleep Apnea

March 03, 2020

Pop quiz: How many different types of sleep apnea are there?

Hint: This is a challenging question. One type of sleep apnea is so much more common than the others that it tends to dominate the discussion. In fact, you may not have even heard of the other two!

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

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 five 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, factors that may increase your risk of this form of sleep apnea include being overweight, inheriting a narrow airway, being a male, and being older.

Central Sleep Apnea

Like obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apneais 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, old age, and the use of narcotic painkillers are all common risk factors. Central sleep apnea symptoms are essentially the same as obstructive sleep apnea symptoms, although snoring can be less prevalent.

Complex Sleep Apnea

Aptly known as “mixed sleep apnea,” this type is 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 a ‘no breathe’ command to the lungs,” reports the American Sleep Apnea Association.

How to Treat Sleep Apnea

No matter the type of sleep apnea, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy is often the leading method of treatment. CPAP therapy works by continuously blowing air through the airway to prevent it from collapsing. There are various models of CPAP machines that have their own special features as well as adjustable masks.

It’s easy enough to understand how CPAP therapy can help with obstructive sleep apnea. In the case of central sleep apnea, on the other hand, CPAP therapy may prevent the airway closure. 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 you’ve learned everything you never knew you needed to know about the different types of sleep apnea! If you suspect that you or a loved one is suffering from sleep apnea, an at-home sleep test can be an easy, convenient way to find out. Lunella allows consumers to take a sleep apnea test from the comfort of their own home and receive a proper data-driven diagnosis from a board-certified sleep physician and a prescription for treatment, if necessary.

This blog post contains general information about medical conditions and potential treatments. It is not medical advice. If you have any medical questions, please consult your doctor.

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