What are the Different Types of Sleep Apnea?

Most people have heard of sleep apnea, and many know of a friend or family member who suffers from it. But, its causes and symptoms are often misunderstood. There are three main types of sleep apnea, each with its own unique physiological characteristics, risk factors, and treatments. Understanding sleep apnea at a deeper level is key to getting the right treatment to reduce or even avoid its symptoms. Treatment options for sleep apnea include masks. 

First, What Is Sleep Apnea, Anyway?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that's fairly common—affecting about 20 million people here in the U.S. That means roughly 1 in every 20 Americans suffer from this condition, although it's more common in men than it is in women.

In general, sleep apnea causes the sufferer to stop breathing multiple times during sleep. That can lead to a host of symptoms, such as loud snoring, waking up gasping for breath, dry-mouth, and headaches in the morning. Sleep apnea causes poor sleep quality, which can lead to chronic fatigue, trouble with concentration and memory, and even problems with irritability or agitated mood. Worse, untreated sleep apnea can contribute to heart problems, high blood pressure, and increased chances for heart attack or stroke. Clearly, this condition causes poorer quality-of-life and can even be life-shortening for some sufferers.

The good news is that, with doctor-prescribed and monitored treatment, most sleep apnea sufferers can go back to getting restful sleep and reduce or even eliminate these negative symptoms altogether.

The 3 Main Types of Sleep Apnea, Explained

There are 3 primary kinds of sleep apnea—one with physical causes, one with neurological causes, and one that's a combination of the other two. Here's a closer look at the main different types of sleep apnea:

1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

OSA is the most common form of sleep apnea. It's caused by partial or complete physical blockage of the airways, generally as throat muscles relax and close off airflow to the lungs. This is called an "apnea event." During apnea events, the brain experiences reduced blood flow, signaling it to wake up -- partially to send signals to the rest of the body telling it that it needs to breathe. That often leads to choking, gasping for breath, or loud snorting.

OSA sufferers may or may not wake up fully during apnea events, and many don't realize they're happening until a partner observes these symptoms or a doctor-supervised sleep test is performed. Other OSA sufferers awaken frequently during the night and may struggle to get back to sleep.

There are also various levels of severity for OSA. Mild cases generally cause between 5 and 14 apnea events per hour. Moderate OSA causes between 15 and 30 events per hour. Finally, severe OSA will lead to more than 30 apnea events per hour.

The risk factors for OSA include being male, weight problems or obesity, age, heavy alcohol use, smoking, and even genetic factors that could cause things like a narrow throat or enlarged tongue. Women also susceptible to the same risk factors, although not as commonly as men.

Treatments for OSA include continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, oral appliances, and certain surgeries.

2. Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)

The second main type of sleep apnea is less common than OSA, and it has to do with a problem in the central nervous system—hence the name. CSA events happen when the sufferer's brain fails to send the right signals to the muscles that control breathing. So, rather than being caused by a mechanical issue as with OSA, CSA can be thought of as a communication issue.

The signs and symptoms of CSA are very similar to those of OSA, as it's mostly the cause of the apnea events that's different. CSA risk factors include obesity, age above 65 years (although not always), gender, and others shared with OSA. On the other hand, CSA's risk factors also include heart disorders, stroke or brain tumor, high altitude, and opioid use.

Likewise, treatments for CSA are similar to OSA, including CPAP therapy. However, because CSA is a neurological issue, there are certain medications that can be used for treatment. Plus, a new FDA-approved therapy called "phrenetic nerve stimulation" is similar to a pacemaker for your breathing. This is a more invasive type of treatment and may be recommended for only the most severe cases.

3. Mixed Sleep Apnea

Also known as "complex sleep apnea," mixed sleep apnea is a combination of OSA and CSA. Since the symptoms are so similar and overlapping, it can be difficult to diagnose mixed sleep apnea.

It's known to occur in sleep labs, when OSA sufferers are treated using positive airway pressure (PAP) devices. In as many as 15% of these cases, OSA sufferers getting PAP treatment can develop symptoms of CSA. Generally, the night sleep study done in a hospital or sleep clinic will reveal whether any CSA events are occurring. 

Right now, effective treatments for mixed sleep apnea are still being developed and refined. Some sufferers can be treated successfully with a CPAP device on its lowest pressure setting—enough to unblock the airways but not enough to trigger CSA. In other cases where CPAP therapy isn't working, more complex devices like bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP) and adaptive servo ventilation (ASV) devices can be effective. However, while these treatments can work for some mixed sleep apnea sufferers, there is still no "best" treatment.

No Matter What the Type, RemZzzs® Can Help

Regardless of the type of sleep apnea you may have, if your doctor prescribes CPAP treatment, RemZzzs® Mask Liners will make your therapy better and easier. Our soft, breathable cotton liners create a better more comfortable seal, that eliminates noisy air leaks and unsightly red marks on your face in the morning. A comfortable CPAP mask means you'll sleep more comfortably while getting more effective therapy!


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