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The Difference Between Hypopnea and Sleep Apnea

One of the most common sleeping problems is hypopnea syndrome, which is a condition where a person's breathing becomes extremely shallow or slow for an extended period of time, most often while sleeping.

This condition is closely related to sleep apnea, except that an apnea is defined as a total stop in breathing instead of only a reduction in the depth or rate of breathing. For this reason, many people refer to these reductions as partial sleep apnea, even though this term is medically incorrect, as apnea means a total cessation of breath.

Just like with sleep apnea, these reductions in breathing can fall into three separate categories: obstructive, central, and mixed. Obstructive hypopnea refers to a condition where the breathing problems are caused by some other condition that results in a partial blockage or obstruction of the airways in the nose or throat, and is far and away the most common of the three hypopneas.

In an obstructive hypopnea, there is usually only a reduction in airflow due to an obstruction, while breathing effort remains the same. These obstructions can be related to any number of different factors, including:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Deviated septum
  • Allergies or other respiratory illnesses
  • Excess soft tissue at the back of the mouth (tongue, uvula, soft palate, enlarged tonsils or adenoids)
  • Nasal swelling and congestion
  • Tonsillitis
  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol before bedtime or taking sedatives and other medications
hypopneaCentral hypopneas are related to other nervous system or muscular disorders which limit a person's ability to breathe properly. In most cases, the reduction in breathing is related to a drop in breathing rate or effort as a result of these other conditions. 

This specific disorder is actually quite rare, and in some cases does not only manifest itself at night, as many individuals also suffer from daytime central hypopneas.

The third type, mixed, refers to breathing reductions directly related both to an obstruction combined with another condition that affects breathing. In most cases, the breathing problems are originally caused by a central condition, but made worse or continued due to an obstruction. 

These episodes are much more common because most people with a condition that leads to a central hypopnea are also dealing with one of the many factors leading to airway obstructions as well, especially those due to being overweight or taking certain medications.

Hypopneas' Effects on Your Daily Life

A partial apnea can basically have all of the same detrimental effects as a total cessation in breathing, resulting in severely degrading the quality of sleep a person gets. In the majority of cases, the individual remains completely unaware that they have any issue, and they will usually sleep throughout the night. Still, most people wake up feeling like they barely slept at all, resulting in extreme fatigue and a constant feeling of tiredness.

hypopneaMany others report having frequent headaches, problems concentrating and difficulties remembering even the simplest things, depression, and lack of energy. Still, the biggest complaint usually comes from the person's partner, as this condition usually results in frequent and often excessively loud snoring.

 These sleeping problems can lead to sleep deprivation, which can in turn cause many other consequences for a person's overall level of health, some of which could be potentially serious. Therefore, it is quite important that you get the diagnosis and treatment you need in order to avoid these other health problems.

Still, the problem with diagnosing this condition is that most people are never aware that they have any sleeping or breathing issues, and unlike sleep apnea, it is usually quite hard for their partner to ever notice their reductions in breathing. So, your feelings of fatigue and your loud snoring will be your best clues that you might be suffering from this condition.

Diagnosing and Treating Sleep Hypopnea

The first step towards diagnosing any sleeping disorder is to undergo a somnography or sleep study, where you'll usually spend the night sleeping at a sleep center while connected to machines to record all of your vital signs, including heart rate, breathing rate, and level of oxygen in the blood among many others. 

Most problems related to this condition are due to the lowering of your blood oxygen concentration that results from these reductions in breathing, and the frequency and length of each episode is needed to determine how severe the condition is and therefore what treatment method is most suitable.

After diagnosing a person with "partial sleep apnea" and determining the severity, your doctor will then sit down with you to decide which treatment option or combination of treatments will be most effective. 


In the more mild to moderate cases, it is often possible to improve or completely eliminate the condition through the use of different over the counter medications and devices, most of which are completely safe and non-invasive. 


hypopneaIn more severe cases, it may be necessary to use a device such as CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) to force air into the lungs throughout the night. Furthermore, sometimes a variety of different surgical procedures may also be required to treat the specific causes of obstructive hypopneas, but these are only recommended as a last resort.

In general, most cases are related to some form of airway obstruction that causes a reduction in breathing, so the best option is usually to understand what is causing the obstruction and develop a treatment plan around it. 

One of the first things most doctors recommend is for a person to try to lose weight through a calorie restricted diet and exercise regimen, as being overweight will only exacerbate any problems.

Overall, choosing the right treatment option will come down to the exact cause of your breathing problems and how severe they are, but nothing can be done until the condition has been properly diagnosed by your doctor. Therefore, if you think you might be suffering from this condition, you need to discuss it with your doctor so that you can get the help you need to sleep and breathe soundly through the night.

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