Central Sleep Apnea – What You Need To Know

There are actually three types of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea (by far the most common), central sleep apnea and complex sleep apnea (which is a combination of the previous two). Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when there is a blockage or narrowing of the airway. Central sleep apnea is different because it occurs when the muscles that control and assist breathing stop working properly because the brain briefly stops transmitting signals to these muscles.

Who is Likely to Get Central Sleep Apnea?

People who have any problems relating to their brainstem may be likely to get it. The brainstem is the posterior part of the brain right at the top of the spine. Although this is a small part of the brain, it has many important functions, including regulating the circulatory, respiratory system and sleep cycles. Anyone who has injured their brainstem may have affected breathing and sleeping cycles, which can lead to central sleep apnea.

A certain type of sleep apnea called Cheyne-Stokes respiration occurs regularly in people with congestive heart failure. This affects breathing cycles when the individual is awake and asleep. If a person has radiation of the cervical spine, or there have been complications during cervical spine surgery, they may be more susceptible to it.

People with illnesses that cause neurodegeneration such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s may be more likely to get it. People who suffer from severe arthritis or severe obesity may also be more susceptible to central sleep apnea. Individuals that take central respiratory depressants over a prolonged period of time may also be more susceptible.

What Happens When You Have Central Sleep Apnea?

If the brain fails to give the signal to inhale, the breathing pattern during sleep is disturbed. This causes a decrease of oxygen and an increase of carbon dioxide in the blood. If oxygen levels get below a level considered “normal”, this is known as hypoxaemia, and if carbon dioxide levels get above a level that is considered “normal” this is known as “hypercapnia”. This is extremely serious, and in very severe cases a lack of oxygen in the body as a result of central sleep apnea can cause sudden death, brain damage and seizures in people who don’t have epilepsy.

However, it is usually more of a chronic condition and like obstructive sleep apnea, it causes the heart to work harder without the presence of sufficient levels of oxygen, as the heart desperately tries to pump oxygenated blood round the body. This can lead to many other illnesses and can cause the person to additionally suffer from high blood pressure. People with central sleep apnea may get cyanosis during sleep, this is when their skin gets a blue tint due to the lack of oxygen in the blood.


Many of the symptoms experienced by people who have it are similar to those experienced by people with obstructive sleep apnea. For example, they may feel very fatigued during the day on a regular basis, they may feel very sleepy during the day and they may get morning headaches due to lack of sleep.

There are also some different symptoms that may be experienced by people with central sleep apnea, depending on whether it was caused by a neurological condition. For example, a change in voice, finding it hard to swallow or numbness in the body may all be symptoms specific to a certain type of apnea. There are a range of treatments available, depending on the severity of the case. It is always advisable to seek professional medical advice and diagnosis if you fear you may have a sleep disorder.