Are There Different Types of Sleep Apnea?

If others complain of loud snoring or if you wake up feeling tired and irritable after eight hours of sleep, you may have sleep apnea. Apnea is a Greek term that literally means "without breath." Sleep apnea is a condition that causes the involuntary cessation of a person's breathing for 10 seconds or more and at frequent intervals while that person sleeps. Treatment is necessary to prevent more serious, long-term consequences, but before recommending treatment, a dentist must first determine which type of apnea a person has.

The 3 types of sleep apnea

There are three types of this disorder: central sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea and complex sleep apnea syndrome. All forms are characterized by the same symptoms:

  • Loud snoring
  • Waking up gasping for air
  • Instances in which one stops breathing during sleep
  • Morning headaches
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Concentration problems during waking hours

Though symptoms look more or less the same across all three types of the condition, the causes behind each differ.

Central sleep apnea

Central sleep apnea is rare and occurs when the brain itself is responsible for a person's failure to breathe. When a person has this type, the brain fails to transmit signals to the breathing muscles. This means the person makes no attempt to breathe during slumber and might wake up feeling breathless or gasping for air.

Obstructive sleep apnea

This is the most common type of the condition and occurs when throat muscles relax while a person slumbers. These muscles are responsible for supporting the soft palate, tonsils, uvula and sidewalls of the tongue and throat. When the throat muscles relax, these other components collapse and thereby narrow the airway significantly, resulting in low blood oxygen levels.

When a person's oxygen levels begin to deplete, the brain sounds the alarm and rouses the person from sleep. Once awake, the muscles constrict and allow air in. The periods of wakefulness are often so brief a person does not remember them. This pattern can repeat itself 30 times an hour during sleep.

There are several risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea. Some of the more common risk factors include obesity, age, alcohol or sedative use and smoking. Other risk factors include being male, having a thick neck, nasal congestion and having a narrowed airway. Studies also suggest that a family history of OSA might increase a person's risk.

Complex sleep apnea syndrome

Complex sleep apnea syndrome is a mixture of both the central and obstructive types. It is not well understood why CompSAS occurs, but studies suggest that with continual continuous positive airway pressure, CSA events begin to disappear after four to six weeks.


Sleep apnea, regardless of the cause, can be disruptive and even dangerous. For this reason, it is imperative that a person who shows signs of OSA, CSA or CompSAS undergo a sleep study and discuss treatment options with a trained sleep disorder professional as soon as possible. Doing so can greatly increase the quality of one's sleep and life.

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