Things to Know About Sleep Apnea

Do you have difficulty breathing during sleep? Perhaps you don’t know the extent of the issue—you’re asleep, after all.

But if you experience frequent nocturnal breathing disruptions, you could suffer from sleep apnea. This sleep disorder often goes undiagnosed and affects more than 18 million adults in the United States.1

What is sleep apnea?

There are three forms of sleep apnea. All include telltale signs such as snoring, pauses in breathing, and gasping for air, but their underlying causes vary:2

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common type of the disorder, occurring when the muscles in the back of the throat relax and block the upper airway.
  • Central sleep apnea (CSA) occurs when the brain fails to send the signals the respiratory system needs to breathe adequately during sleep.
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome (CompSAS) is a combination of OSA and CSA. Those coping with CompSAS tend to have clinical symptoms similar to OSA and breathing patterns similar to CSA. 

For those who have sleep apnea, there are treatments that can ease the severity of these symptoms. Both lifestyle changes and breathing devices like continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) machines are often utilized as treatment options.3

What are the signs & symptoms of sleep apnea?

The signs of sleep apnea are closely linked to mood, breathing patterns, and fatigue. Consider making an appointment with a medical professional if you experience any of the following:4

  • Intermittent pauses in breathing
    • Pauses in breathing reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood, which can cause headaches. You may wake up for a few seconds at a time to reopen your upper airway and address this. This pattern can take place anywhere from 5 to 30 or more times per hour all night long—and you may not remember the disruptions when you wake up in the morning.
  • Gasping, snoring, or snorting
    • If you are a noisy sleeper, take note—your upper airway might be obstructed. While snoring doesn’t necessarily mean you have sleep apnea, it is linked to the disorder. You may be experiencing an apnea episode if your snoring includes frequent pausing and loud snorts or gasps. Pay attention to any signs that point to breathing difficulties.
  • Restlessness during sleep
    • Sleep apnea patients typically toss and turn at night. You may find yourself thrashing or kicking, waking up periodically, and moving around quite a bit to cope with each apnea episode. And regardless of whether you are aware of your breathing difficulties, you will likely become restless.
    • These, of course, are just some of the signs of sleep apnea. The sleep disorder features a number of symptoms as well. For instance, many sleep apnea patients grapple with chronic fatigue. Perhaps you’re sleeping a full eight hours per night, yet you still feel exhausted in the morning. Sleep apnea affects the quality of your sleep, and as such, you may not be getting the level of rest you truly need.
    • Mood swings and difficulty concentrating are other symptoms of the sleep disorder—and so is hypertension. If your blood isn’t getting the oxygen it requires, you may experience a temporary spike in blood pressure that could become chronic if the apnea episodes persist.

What are the risk factors for sleep apnea?

Researchers from the Stanford University Center for Narcolepsy revealed that OSA has a genetic component.5 That said, all types of sleep apnea are linked to a number of risk factors. In addition to family history, OSA is associated with the following:4,6

  • Being overweight, which can cause fat deposits to build up around your upper airway and go on to obstruct your breathing. Obese people are four times more likely to develop OSA.
  • Being male. Also, women are more likely to experience the disorder if they are overweight.
  • Being older, as people over 40 are more likely to have OSA.
  • A greater neck circumference, which points to a narrow airway. A person’s risk increases if their neck circumference is ≥17 inches (43 cm) for men, and ≥15 inches (38 cm) for women. (A narrow airway isn’t always associated with a high neck circumference, though—it’s hereditary in itself, and can predispose patients to OSA no matter the circumference of their neck.)
  • Nasal congestion—regardless of whether you have trouble breathing through your nose for anatomical reasons or simply due to allergies.
  • Smoking, which can cause inflammation and increase fluid retention in the upper airway. For this reason, smokers are three times more likely to develop OSA than nonsmokers.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption, which can relax the muscles in the throat and subsequently lead to a higher likelihood of developing OSA. 

Middle-aged and older people, just like in OSA, have a higher risk of contracting CSA. Meanwhile, CompSAS is tied to a combination of the abovementioned risk factors.

This blog is for informational purposes only. If you believe you might have an undiagnosed case of sleep apnea, schedule an appointment with your healthcare practitioner. Your healthcare practitioner can discuss any sleep-related symptoms you may have and help develop a treatment plan, if applicable.



  1. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Health Library. Sleep Apnea.,P01301. Accessed July 23, 2018.
  2. Wang J et al. Complex sleep apnea syndrome. Patient Prefer Adherence. 2013;7:633–641.
  3. USDHHS. NHLBI. Sleep Apnea. Accessed July 23, 2018.
  4. Mayo Clinic. Sleep apnea. Accessed July 23, 2018.
  5. Taheri S et al. The genetics of sleep disorders. Lancet Neurol. 2002;1(4):242-250.
  6. National Sleep Foundation. Sleep Apnea. Accessed July 23, 2018.

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