What is central sleep apnea? A look at the central sleep apnea definition

What is central sleep apnea? Much of the conversation around sleep apnea, including most of what we discuss here at the blog, focuses on obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is a common type of sleep apnea.

But just as important, if less frequent among patients, is central sleep apnea (CSA). Today, we’ll begin a new series of blog posts that explores the central sleep apnea definition, then moves on to causes, symptoms and potential treatment options.

Exploring the central sleep apnea definition in detail

Central sleep apnea involves the interruption of breathing during the night, disrupting sleep. It has that in common with obstructive sleep apnea. But aside from that basic fact, the two types are different.

“Central sleep apnea (CSA) is defined by the cessation of air flow without respiratory effort,” write the authors of a 2010 study published in the journal Respiratory Care.1 That’s in contrast to obstructive sleep apnea, in which breathing is stopped but the body is still trying to breathe. In central sleep apnea, your body isn’t making the effort to breathe.

So, unlike obstructive sleep apnea, which is caused by physical conditions like the blocking of the breathing airway by throat tissue, central sleep apnea “occurs if the area of your brain that controls your breathing doesn’t send the correct signals to your breathing muscles,” according to the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI). “As a result, you’ll make no effort to breathe for brief periods.”

The NHLBI also notes that, although central sleep apnea can affect people of all ages and body types, “it’s more common in people who have certain medical conditions or use certain medicines.”

Further exploring the central sleep apnea definition

Central sleep apnea is widely believed among medical professionals to be much less common than obstructive sleep apnea. “Estimates vary as to the frequency of central sleep apnea,” states the website of the American Sleep Apnea Association. “Some say it accounts for 20 percent of all cases of sleep apnea.”

Because of the crossover between central and obstructive sleep apnea – in the form of mixed or complex sleep apnea, where patients exhibit symptom of both types – those exact numbers can be hard to pinpoint. (In a future blog post, we’ll look more closely at this crossover.)

So, considering that central sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea are often found together, and since the symptoms are often described as the same – daytime drowsiness, lack of energy – how can you tell which type you may have?

The best answer, as always, is to talk to your doctor or sleep therapist. But in the meantime, we’ll continue to explore the central sleep apnea definition, as well as causes, types, symptoms and treatment options.

This blog post contains general information about medical conditions and potential treatments. It is not medical advice. If you have any medical questions, please consult your doctor.

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