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What Are The Most Common Causes of Sleep Apnea?

If you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, one of the first things you probably want to know about is the causes of sleep apnea. If your doctor has diagnosed you with moderate to severe sleep apnea, you have most likely also been told that you will need to use a CPAP machine while sleeping, as this is the only truly effective solution available barring expensive and sometimes risky surgery.

Still, most likely the cause of sleep apnea is related to another condition, which could be improved or corrected and have an effect on the apnea. If you would like to try and improve your situation and make it possible to sleep without using a CPAP machine, then you first must understand exactly what sleep apnea is and how it works. The first step to understanding and trying to improve your condition is to know about the causes of sleep apnea.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are two different types of this sleeping disorder, and in order to understand what is causing the disorder, you must first know which one you are suffering from.

The two types are obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea is a very rare condition where the cessations in breathing during sleep are caused by a problem with the central nervous system, whereas obstructive sleep apnea refers to a condition where the breathing stops due to blockages or restrictions of the air passages in either the throat or the nose. 

Common Causes of Central Sleep Apnea

In central sleep apnea, the pauses in breathing are actually caused by the brain not sending signals to the body to tell it to breathe. When this happens, the individual usually wakes up for a short period of time and gasps for a few breaths before falling back to sleep. Once back asleep, breathing may return to normal for a period of time, or the pauses may begin again almost immediately. 


Basically speaking, the causes of central sleep apnea normally have something to do with the brainstem, which connects the brain to the rest of the body and is responsible for controlling the majority of vital body functions, including breathing. 


Therefore, any sort of damage to the spinal cord, brain, or brainstem can manifest itself in central sleep apnea. Another common cause of central sleep apnea is heart problems, such as congestive heart failure or a heart attack. In addition, strokes are another cause of central sleep apnea. 

Finally, there are also temporary forms of central sleep apnea brought on by medication or certain conditions. Taking opiates can cause a form of central sleep apnea while the person is under the influence of the medication. You can even experience a form of central sleep apnea if you remain above 15,000 feet above sea level for a long period of time. 

Common Causes of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Unlike central sleep apnea, the cause of obstructive sleep apnea relates to an obstruction in the throat or nose, which makes it difficult or impossible for a person to breathe. Their breathing will pause for a short period of time (between 5 and 30 seconds on average) until the person wakes up and starts breathing normally again. 

Typically, the person is completely unaware that they even woke up. The obstruction of the throat or nose is also what is responsible for the loud snoring noises that almost always accompany obstructive sleep apnea, whereas those with central sleep apnea do not always snore. 

While the cause of obstructive sleep apnea is basically a blockage, the actual restriction or obstruction can be caused by a number of other factors, and the obstruction can be either in the throat or in the nose. 

In most cases, an obstruction of the throat is due to the collapsing of the soft tissue at the back of the mouth and throat, including the tongue, uvula, and soft palate. One of the most common causes of obstructive sleep apnea caused by a blockage in the throat (and also one of the most curable) is being significantly overweight

There is a clear connection between sleep apnea and weight loss. When you are overweight, your muscles will collapse more and excess fat in your neck and face can press into your throat and cause it to not open as far as it would otherwise. 

Still, it could also be that a person has an enlarged uvula or a bigger than average tongue, and this can also cause them to collapse back into the throat and cause a blockage. 

These blockages are typically much worse when a person sleeps on their back, as this is when the soft tissue is most likely to fall back and block the throat. Either sleeping on your side or losing weight are both good options for reducing obstructive sleep apnea.

For those with a blockage of the nose, there are several different factors that could be responsible. One of the most common of these is a deviated septum, which can severely restrict the amount of airflow that can pass through the nostrils. 

This could be caused by a genetic or birth defect, or also a result of a broken nose. Additionally, some people are born with smaller than average nostrils or nasal passages, and this again has the effect of not allowing an adequate amount of air to pass through. 

Finally, many people also suffer from temporary blockages of the nostrils and nasal passages due to allergies, the common cold, or any other inflammation of the nasal passages. 

For those with a deviated septum or some other defect which is causing their sleep apnea, one of the most common ways to solve this problem is through a surgical procedure to correct the defect. While a simple inflammation can be cleared up with the use of an antihistamine or other cold or flu medications, or even the use of a humidifier.

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