Man unsure about sleep apnea causes

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder characterized by frequent pauses in breathing throughout the night. There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Knowing more about obstructive sleep apnea causes and central sleep apnea causes may help you prevent this debilitating sleep disorder so you can stay feeling energetic and healthy for years to come.

How do you get sleep apnea, and what are the most common sleep apnea causes? Here are common risk factors that contribute to sleep apnea.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Causes

Obstructive sleep apnea is more common than central sleep apnea and occurs when the throat muscles relax and block the airway during sleep. This mechanism is what causes loud snoring, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea has an estimated worldwide prevalence of 22% in men and 17% in women.

The most common cause and risk factor of obstructive sleep apnea is excess weight or obesity. People with excess weight often have pockets of fat around the upper airway that constrict breathing.

In addition to obesity, other common causes of obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Being older
  • Being male
  • Frequent use of alcohol and sedatives (benzodiazepines, barbiturates, sleep aids)
  • Smoking
  • Nasal congestion
  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • Certain physical traits (large neck circumference, narrowed throat or airway, large tonsils)

Some of these risk factors can be controlled, while others may not. For instance, losing excess weight, quitting smoking, and reducing the use of alcohol and sedatives may reverse sleep apnea. However, being male, older, or having a family history of sleep apnea are uncontrollable and non-modifiable risk factors.

Man quitting smoking to avoid sleep apnea causes

Central Sleep Apnea Causes

Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to send signals to the muscles that control breathing. This results in shortness of breath or difficulty with falling asleep or staying asleep. Central sleep apnea is less common than obstructive sleep apnea but shares some of the same causes and risk factors.

Common central sleep apnea causes include:

  • Being older
  • Being male
  • Frequent use of opioids such as methadone
  • Heart disorders, including congestive heart failure
  • Stroke

Is Sleep Apnea Genetic?

Genetics may be associated with sleep apnea, but are not a major risk factor for this sleep disorder. The U.S. National Library of Medicine reports that the genes thought to be associated with sleep apnea include those that play a role in breathing regulation, nerve cell communication, appetite control, inflammatory response control, craniofacial development, and the sleep-wake cycle. However, a person’s health and lifestyle behaviors may help minimize these genetic predispositions to sleep apnea.

Treating Sleep Apnea Causes

Sleep apnea can be effectively treated and improved by making a series of healthy lifestyle changes and by taking steps to reduce the risk of heart events and stroke. Common treatments for sleep apnea include continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), oral appliances that keep the throat and airway open, and surgery on the jaw or throat. Losing excess weight, quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake, and using alternative therapies to sedatives and opioids may also help reverse symptoms of sleep apnea.

If you suspect that you or a loved one has sleep apnea, a sleep study test and a proper diagnosis from a doctor can bring you one step closer toward achieving a quality night’s sleep. Consider using an at-home sleep test to help your doctor diagnose sleep apnea and get started on the path to improved overall health.