Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder which causes irregular breathing and snoring patterns that can ultimately cause apnea, which is where a person momentarily stops breathing altogether. The inability to get restful sleep can also lead to severe exhaustion.
Individuals can have obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, or features of both. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form, and it develops when there’s a blockage of the airways. Now, air has to go from the nose through the nasopharynx into the laryngopharynx, through the larynx and then into the trachea. Somewhere along that path, there might be a blockage in the flow of air.
Allergies might cause swelling in the tissues in the nasopharynx, or there might be swollen adenoid glands or tonsils because of an infection. There might be a severe overbite which pulls the jaw back and blocks the airway. In individuals that are overweight, there could be too much weight in the soft tissues of the neck, which can weigh down the airway especially when a person is lying down.
These problems are most obvious at night because hormonal changes at night cause the muscles around the airway to become slightly less stiff while sleeping. This means that they are less able to keep the airway open, making it more likely to get a bit squashed or obstructed.
Central sleep apnea, on the other hand, refers to the fact that the problem is “central” or related to the central nervous system. This is where the brain intermittently stops making an effort to breathe for 10 to 30 seconds. The apnea can persist for several seconds even after waking up, triggering feelings of panic and further disrupting the sleep cycle.
Central sleep apnea starts with an initial episode of hyperpnea, which is when the brain directs the lungs to start hyperventilating during sleep by increasing the respiratory rate. This rapid breathing causes hypocapnia, a drop in the blood’s carbon dioxide levels.