Central sleep apnea

Central sleep apnea is a disorder in which your breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep.

Central sleep apnea occurs because your brain doesn't send proper signals to the muscles that control your breathing. This condition is different from obstructive sleep apnea, in which you can't breathe normally because of upper airway obstruction.

Central sleep apnea is less common than obstructive sleep apnea.

Central sleep apnea may occur as a result of other conditions, such as heart failure and stroke. Sleeping at a high altitude also may cause central sleep apnea.

Treatments for central sleep apnea may involve treating existing conditions, using a device to assist breathing or using supplemental oxygen.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications

Common signs and symptoms of central sleep apnea include:

  • Observed episodes of stopped breathing or abnormal breathing patterns during sleep
  • Abrupt awakenings accompanied by shortness of breath
  • Shortness of breath that's relieved by sitting up
  • Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mood changes
  • Morning headaches
  • Snoring

Although snoring indicates some degree of increased obstruction to airflow, snoring also may be heard in the presence of central sleep apnea. However, snoring may not be as prominent with central sleep apnea as it is with obstructive sleep apnea.

When to see a doctor

Consult a medical professional if you experience, or if your partner observes, any signs or symptoms of central sleep apnea, particularly the following:

  • Shortness of breath that awakens you from sleep
  • Intermittent pauses in your breathing during sleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Excessive daytime drowsiness, which may cause you to fall asleep while you're working, watching television or even driving

Ask your doctor about any sleep problem that leaves you chronically fatigued, sleepy and irritable. Excessive daytime drowsiness (hypersomnia) may be due to other disorders, such as narcolepsy or obstructive sleep apnea.

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