What is Sleep Apnea?

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OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

Sleep apnea is a chronic disorder that can occur in children or adults, and is characterized by the cessation of breathing during sleep. These episodes may last for several seconds or several minutes, and may differ in the frequency with which they are experienced. Sleep apnea leads to poor sleep, which is reflected in the symptoms of fatigue, evening napping, irritability, memory problems, and morning headaches. In addition, many individuals with sleep apnea experience a dry throat in the morning after waking from sleep, which may be due to excessive snoring.

There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is caused by an obstruction of the airway during sleep, which can occur at different points in the airway, depending on the underlying cause of the obstruction. For example, the tongue and throat muscles of some individuals with obstructive sleep apnea may relax excessively, causing the muscles to push into the airway. Another example is obesity, which is a known risk factor for sleep apnea, as excess adipose tissue in the neck region can push the soft tissues towards the lumen of the airway, causing the trachea to narrow.

In central sleep apnea, the respiratory centers of the brain do not respond properly to rising carbon dioxide levels and therefore do not stimulate the contraction of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles regularly. As a result, inspiration does not occur and breathing stops for a short period. In some cases, the cause of central sleep apnea is unknown. However, some medical conditions, such as stroke and congestive heart failure, may cause damage to the pons or medulla oblongata. In addition, some pharmacologic agents, such as morphine, can affect the respiratory centers, causing a decrease in the respiratory rate. The symptoms of central sleep apnea are similar to those of obstructive sleep apnea.

A diagnosis of sleep apnea is usually done during a sleep study, where the patient is monitored in a sleep laboratory for several nights. The patient’s blood oxygen levels, heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure are monitored, as are brain activity and the volume of air that is inhaled and exhaled. Treatment of sleep apnea commonly includes the use of a device called a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine during sleep. The CPAP machine has a mask that covers the nose, or the nose and mouth, and forces air into the airway at regular intervals. This pressurized air can help to gently force the airway to remain open, allowing more normal ventilation to occur. Other treatments include lifestyle changes to decrease weight, eliminate alcohol and other sleep apnea–promoting drugs, and changes in sleep position. In addition to these treatments, patients with central sleep apnea may need supplemental oxygen during sleep.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/anatomy-and-physiology