Obstructive versus central sleep apnea: What’s the difference?


Pulmonologists specialize in breathing disorders such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, COPD, and respiratory infections. We also treat sleep disorders that affect your breathing.

There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), central sleep apnea (CSA), and mixed sleep apnea (a combination of the two). All types of sleep apnea cause numerous interruptions in breathing while you are asleep, which can be fatal in severe cases. The difference between obstructive and central sleep apnea is what causes you to stop breathing normally.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type.  For people with OSA, the upper airway may close because there is some physical obstruction in the way.

Central sleep apnea is caused by a disorder of the central nervous system that affects brain signaling. For some reason, the brain momentarily “forgets” to tell your muscles to breathe, and the body stops trying to breathe.

The solution for OSA is to sleep with a breathing machine that uses pressurized air to keep your airway completely open all night long. It is called a CPAP or BiPAP machine, which provide a continuous (CPAP) or variable (BiPAP) flow of air through a tube and into a mask, which is worn while you sleep. The amount of air pressure is prescribed by the physician according to the severity of the obstruction.  People with OSA often display symptoms of loud, irregular snoring before being diagnosed.

A breathing machine may also be helpful for treating CSA, as it can provide a steady flow of oxygen to supplement momentary episodes of sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea is sometimes associated with other health problems including stroke and heart failure, so the treatment plan should address any underlying conditions that may be contributing to symptoms of sleep apnea.

There are additional treatments available for OSA and CSA if a breathing machine does not help.

Many people do not know they have sleep apnea unless someone else notices the symptoms. In addition to not breathing momentarily, sleep apnea is associated with symptoms of snoring and sleep deprivation, which may impact other aspects of your mental and physical health.  To find out if you have sleep apnea, a sleep study will be conducted overnight to record your sleep patterns.

Take our sleep survey to get started, and talk to one of our sleep medicine specialists if you have concerns about your risk for sleep apnea. Call Northwest Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine Specialists at 8154777350.

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