Central sleep apnea is a disorder in which your breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep.
Central sleep apnea occurs because your brain doesn't send proper signals to the muscles that control your breathing. This condition is different from obstructive sleep apnea, in which you can't breathe normally because of upper airway obstruction. Central sleep apnea is less common than obstructive sleep apnea.
Central sleep apnea may occur as a result of other conditions, such as heart failure and stroke. Sleeping at a high altitude also may cause central sleep apnea. Treatments for central sleep apnea may involve treating existing conditions, using a device to assist breathing or using supplemental oxygen.
Common signs and symptoms of central sleep apnea include:
Although snoring indicates some degree of airflow obstruction, snoring also may be heard in the presence of central sleep apnea. However, snoring may not be as prominent with central sleep apnea as it is with obstructive sleep apnea.
When to see a doctor
Consult a medical professional if you experience â or if your partner observes any signs or symptoms of â central sleep apnea, particularly the following:
Ask your doctor about any sleep problem that leaves you chronically fatigued, sleepy and irritable. Excessive daytime drowsiness (hypersomnia) may be due to other disorders, such as narcolepsy or obstructive sleep apnea.
Central sleep apnea occurs when your brain fails to transmit signals to your breathing muscles.
Central sleep apnea can be caused by a number of conditions that affect the ability of your brainstem â which links your brain to your spinal cord and controls many functions such as heart rate and breathing â to control your breathing. The cause varies with the type of central sleep apnea you have. Types include:
Your doctor may make an evaluation based on your signs and symptoms or may refer you to a sleep specialist in a sleep disorder center.
A sleep specialist can help you decide on your need for further evaluation. Such an evaluation often involves overnight monitoring of your breathing and other body functions during a sleep study called polysomnography.
During polysomnography, you're connected to equipment that monitors your heart, lung and brain activity, breathing patterns, arm and leg movements, and blood oxygen levels while you sleep. You may have a full-night or split-night sleep study.
In a split-night sleep study, you're monitored during the first half of the night. If you're diagnosed with central sleep apnea, staff may wake you and give you positive airway pressure for the second half of the night.
Polysomnography can help your doctor diagnose central sleep apnea. It also can help your doctor rule out other sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea, periodic limb movements of sleep or narcolepsy, which can cause excessive daytime sleepiness but require different treatment.
Doctors trained in nervous system diseases (neurologists), heart diseases (cardiologists) and others may be involved in evaluating your condition. Doctors may also order imaging of your head or heart to look for contributing conditions.
Central sleep apnea is a serious medical condition. Some complications include:
Fatigue. The repeated awakenings associated with sleep apnea make normal, restorative sleep impossible. People with central sleep apnea often experience severe fatigue, daytime drowsiness and irritability.
You may have difficulty concentrating and find yourself falling asleep at work, while watching television or even when driving.
Cardiovascular problems. In addition, sudden drops in blood oxygen levels that occur during central sleep apnea may adversely affect heart health.
If there's underlying heart disease, these repeated multiple episodes of low blood oxygen (hypoxia or hypoxemia) worsen prognosis and increase the risk of abnormal heart rhythms.
Certain factors put you at increased risk of central sleep apnea:
CPAP. Some people with obstructive sleep apnea develop central sleep apnea while using continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). This condition is known as complex sleep apnea because it is a combination of obstructive and central sleep apneas.
For some people, complex sleep apnea goes away with continued use of a CPAP device. Other people may be treated with a different kind of positive airway pressure therapy.