Sleep Apnea Causes & Risk Factors

Published: April 21, 2010

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What Are the Causes?

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

When a person is awake, the throat muscles keep the airway open so that oxygen can flow freely into the lungs. When a person is asleep, the throat muscles relax. For most people, the airway remains open so that air can continue to flow freely. In contrast, for people with obstructive sleep apnea, the airways can become blocked or constricted.

The throat muscles and tongue might be relaxed more than normal, and the tongue and tonsils might be enlarged. If you're overweight, your excess fatty tissue can cause the windpipe wall to become thicker. The shape of your head and neck can also cause the airway to be abnormally small. As you age, the brain signals that control your throat muscles might become weak. All of these reasons, alone or combined, can cause you to develop obstructive sleep apnea.

As a result of these causes, people experience reduced air flow to the lungs. When the airways are fully or partially blocked, a drop in blood oxygen levels can result, and snoring, choking, or snorting can occur. Some people may snore loudly, and some people may snore lightly. Periodically, throughout the night, you may experience pauses in your breathing - sometimes as many as five in one hour - throughout the night. Night after night, these breathing problems can affect your heart, mental, and neurological health. You may think that you are getting enough sleep, and you may be unaware that you're experiencing sleeping problems.

The drops in oxygen levels and lowered quality of sleep can raise stress hormone levels, putting people at risk for hypertension, heart attack, stroke, and heart palpitations. After a number of years, people will develop heart failure and other severe problems. For this reason, it is important that you see a doctor to have your sleep apnea diagnosed. It is important to determine the specific cause for your condition so that you are treated effectively.

Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea results in similar short-term and long-term consequences to obstructive sleep apnea; however, the causes are different.

Central sleep apnea occurs when the signals of the brain experience an interruption. As a result, people will experience pauses in breathing throughout the night, causing in complications such as neurological problems, heart failure, palpitations, and hypertension. As with obstructive sleep apnea, you may not notice that you have central sleep apnea. When you do not notice this condition, your sleep apnea can become worse, and the damage to your system can intensify.

The causes of central sleep apnea are neurological. Strokes, head injuries, and nervous system disorders can all affect your breathing while you sleep.

Central sleep apnea is rarer than obstructive sleep apnea, which is a relatively common condition.

Mixed Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea, when left untreated, can cause central sleep apnea to develop. In this situation, a patient will have both central and obstructive sleep apnea. This type of sleep apnea, although rare, is extremely dangerous and can significant problems.

Who's at Risk?

People who are overweight are at high risk for developing sleep apnea since excess fat can cause the windpipe to become more constricted. People with allergies may develop enlarged or irritated tonsils that can cause blockages to the windpipe opening.

People who are aging are at risk for developing sleep apnea. As you grow older, the brain signals that keep the throat muscles stiff can weaken, especially during sleep. As a result of these weakened brain signals, the throat muscles will relax, causing the windpipe to become constricted.

Sleep apnea can cause complications for people with preexisting heart problems or hypertension. When oxygen levels drop and sleep patterns are disrupted, complications such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, and heart palpitations can occur. People with a predisposition to heart failure may experience complications.

People with a family history of sleep apnea are likely to develop sleep apnea. It is important to keep track of who in your family has developed sleep apnea and why.

If you have sleep apnea and you remain undiagnosed and untreated, you are likely to develop severe complications, especially if your sleep apnea has gone undiagnosed for an extended period of time. When sleep apnea is untreated, your body is unable to use energy efficiently, putting you at risk for problems such as obesity.

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