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What Is The Difference Between Sleep Apnea And Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

What Is The Difference Between Sleep Apnea And Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea or central sleep apnea is a condition in which the breathing halts and commences during the sleep repeatedly. This condition occurs because the muscles that control your breathing are not instructed or signaled properly by your brain. This condition quite varies from another condition known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). In obstructive sleep apnea, the reason for repeated breaks in breathing is the narrowing of the upper airway and not associated with brain signaling.(1)

Another difference between the two conditions is that central sleep apnea is quite uncommon compared to obstructive sleep apnea.(1,2)

Causes of Sleep Apnea: Central sleep apnea results when the brain cannot deliver correct signals to the muscles that manage your breathing. Central sleep apnea may also be caused due to many other reasons that affect your brainstem and in turn, affect your brain’s ability to control breathing. Different causes lead to different types of central sleep apneas. These may include-

  1. Cheyne-Stokes Breathing: This kind of sleep apnea is usually related to conditions like stroke or congestive cardiac failure
  2. Sleep Apnea Caused Due To Drugs: Medicines like opioids (morphine etc.), oxycodone, codeine, etc. may lead to irregular breathing, an increased or decreased breathing and a temporary complete stoppage of breathing.
  3. Periodic Breathing Pattern At High Altitude: If you get exposed to an extremely high altitude, there may be a development of Cheyne-stokes breathing pattern. At a higher altitude, there are changes in oxygen levels, which prompt this kind of alternate rapid and under- breathing, also known as hyperventilation and hypoventilation
  4. Sleep Apnea Related To Treatment: Those taking continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP may develop central sleep apnea. This sleep apnea is caused due to treatment. It is a blend of both types of apnea- central and obstructive.
  5. Medical Conditions-Related Central Sleep Apnea: Conditions like last-stage kidney disease, stroke, etc. may result in central sleep apnea
  6. Primary Sleep Apnea: The cause of this condition is not known and hence is also known as idiopathic central sleep apnea.(1)
  7. Causes Of Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Obstructive sleep apnea results when there is an obstruction, constriction or narrowing of the upper airway. The muscles at the back of your throat relax a lot and do not allow normal breathing in this case. When this happens, the airway closes or narrows when you breathe in, causing inadequate breathing for a period of 10 seconds or even longer. As a result, the oxygen level in your blood may drop and carbon dioxide levels may elevate. Once your brain senses something is amiss, it wakes you up from your sleep to open your airway and compensate for the troubled breathing. When you awaken to correct this, there may be shortness of breath, choking, gasping or snorting sounds.

This pattern repeats itself over and over, all night long, giving you an incomplete and disturbed sleep, leading to daytime sleepiness.

Those suffering from obstructive sleep apnea may not even be aware of their disturbed sleep. On the contrary, they might actually think that they slept very well.(2)


Sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea are two very different conditions. Central sleep apnea occurs because the brain cannot send signals correctly to the muscles that manage to breathe and as a result, there are breaks in breathing while you are asleep. Obstructive sleep apnea, on the other hand, occurs when there is an obstruction in the upper airway, which leads to breaks in breathing while you are asleep. Sleep apnea, of any kind, is quite a serious condition and needs to be diagnosed and treated on time. If left untreated, sleep apnea can cause dangerous health problems like stroke, heart conditions, poor growth and development in children and even death. Consult with your doctor emergently, if you observe any of the symptoms of sleep apnea in your child or loved one.


Also Read:

Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Sheetal DeCaria, M.D. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:January 24, 2020

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