What Is Central Sleep Apnea?

A sleeping disorder in which breathing stops periodically, Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) is caused by a problem where the brain does not send the message to your respiratory system and muscles to actually do the breathing while you are asleep.

Central Sleep Apnea Symptoms

While symptoms may vary between individuals, here are some of the most common Central Sleep Apnea symptoms:

  • Loud snoring
  • Waking with choking or gasping for air
  • Insomnia (difficulty staying asleep)
  • Hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness during the day while performing activities)
  • Mood changes and irritability
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Shortness of breath upon waking
  • Chest pain at night
  • Observed episodes of abnormal breathing during sleep

Causes of Central Sleep Apnea

A failure in the brain to signal the body to breathe during sleep may be related to a few different factors, including:

High Altitude

Because of the way the air in places with higher altitudes is “thinner” (containing less oxygen), this can lead to under-breathing or hyper-ventilation problems alternately. This may occur in people who are sleeping at altitudes over 15,000 feet. Getting back to a lower altitude often relieves these problems.

Drug Use

Certain drugs, whether used under the care of a doctor or not, may lead to problems with sleep apnea and irregular breathing patterns. These opioids include medications such as oxycodone (Oxycodone HCL, Oxycontin), morphine sulfate (Ms Contin), or codeine sulfate. Be sure that if you are taking these medications, that you are under the care of a physician and you alert a medical professional if you ever have breathing problems.

Congestive Heart Failure or Stroke

Certain medical conditions can cause Cheyne-Stokes breathing, which is characterized by breathing that gradually increases and then decreases in airflow and effort. During weaker points of airflow, CSA may occur while the person is sleeping, and the airflow actually stops. Kidney failure, heart failure, and stroke may all be causes of this type of breathing.

Complex Sleep Apnea

Some people who start out with simple Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) may be at risk of developing Central Sleep Apnea if they use a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine as treatment. The combination of the two types of sleep apnea is referred to as Complex Sleep Apnea.

What’s the Difference between Central Sleep Apnea and Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Central Sleep Apnea is categorized with its cousin, Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). The difference between the two conditions is that Central Sleep Apnea is caused by a brain malfunction, but OSA is actually caused by something physical getting in the way of your body’s ability to breathe. This may be due to a person having a large neck where gravity causes the back of the tongue to fall back into the breathing passage causing blockage. It could be related to a person who has blocked nasal passages due to deviated septum or allergies. In children, OSA may even be caused by swollen adenoids or tonsils.

How is Central Sleep Apnea Diagnosed?

First, if you suspect that you might have any sleeping disorder, it is important to contact your doctor. Breathing during sleep is very important and central sleep apnea is a particularly treatable condition.

Your physician may refer you to a sleep specialist or a sleep clinic who will schedule you for Polysomnography—which is just a fancy word for “sleep study”. Most often the study takes place in a clinic, in a room which resembles a hotel room more than a hospital room. You may also be referred to a sleep study at home, which is less expensive but also may be less effective.

Your sleep study will aim to diagnose your sleeping disorder by measuring brain waves, heart rate, oxygen levels, breathing, eye movements, and leg movements while you are sleeping. The tests are not painful but you may have a bit of difficulty falling asleep when attached to various tubes.

Once the study is complete, if you receive a diagnosis of sleep apnea, you will be assigned a severity that will help your doctor determine the treatment that is best for you. If your case is mild, you will experience between five and fifteen respiratory episodes where you stop breathing (“apneic events”) each hour. If your case is moderate, your episodes will be between 15 and 30. And if you have a severe case of sleep apnea, you’ll stop breathing more than 30 times per hour.

Can You Die From Central Sleep Apnea?

Although Central Sleep Apnea on its own is not likely to kill you outright, complications related to the condition could certainly shorten a person’s expected life span. This is particularly true if CSA is linked with other diseases such as congestive heart failure or stroke, which can be causes of early death. On the other hand, sometimes treatment of an underlying illness will eliminate or reduce the symptoms of CSA with no other treatment required.

Treatment for Central Sleep Apnea

The good news is that, although sleep apnea is a serious condition, it can often be treated without surgery with fairly non-invasive treatment methods. If you suspect that you have central or obstructive sleep apnea, be sure to contact a medical professional or sleep specialist right away. If your sleep apnea symptoms are related to another medical condition, speak with the physician who is treating you about your problems with sleeping.

One of the most common methods for treating sleep apnea of any kind is a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. A mask is attached to the face, keeping the air flowing throughout the breathing passages while the person is sleeping, forcing them open so that the body can receive the oxygen it needs. CPAP and Bi-PAP machines today are fairly quiet and specialized pillows and mattresses may be purchased to help you sleep more comfortably while wearing the breathing machine.


People with central sleep apnea are at risk for many conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, diabetes, heart failure, and other health problems. Sleep apnea can be a dangerous condition, but the good news is that many treatment options are available to help you along the way.

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