Anatomy of Sleep Apnea and Its Impact on Breathing

Sleep apnea is a very common sleep disorder that affects millions of people around the world. 

The condition involves intermittent pauses in the breathing pattern while sleeping which triggers a reaction as the body struggles for air. These breathing pauses, called “apneas,” occur because the muscles in the throat relax too much -- allowing the air passage to become blocked. 

This diminishes the air supply -- and the body reacts by waking up the sleeper, alerting them to the problem.

These unconscious brief awakenings can occur dozens (and even several hundreds) of times in a single night, leaving the sufferer very tired the following morning due to the disrupted night's rest.

Very often, they are unaware of these apneas – as each awakening is very brief, lasting just a minimum of ten seconds. Yet over time, when this occurs night after night, the disrupted supply of oxygen takes a toll on overall health – affecting the body’s organs, blood vessels and biological processes.

Cases of sleep apnea range from mild to very severe -- but even the mildest of cases can have detrimental effects on health and well-being as the body fails to get the rest essential for proper functioning.

Two Types

There are two forms of this sleep disorder: OSA (obstructive sleep apnea) and CSA (central sleep apnea). OSA is by far the most commonly diagnosed form but both have similar symptoms and effects.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea. OSA occurs when throat muscles relax during sleep, causing a blockage in the muscles of the airways – preventing the passage of oxygen. 

As a response, the sufferer wakes momentarily when the throat muscles are re-engaged, the blockage cleared, and normal breathing is resumed. This process takes seconds to complete and is usually accompanied by brief choking or snorting sounds. 

Central Sleep Apnea. CSA is rare and affects less than an estimated 1% of adult Americans in its purest form -- but still poses a health risk for those suffering with the condition. 

The effects on breathing are the same as those of OSA but this condition is caused by temporary disruptions between the brain and muscles controlling breathing. As with OSA, this results in the sufferer briefly awakening as the breath becomes shallower and even pauses for a minimum of ten seconds..

Mixed Sleep Apnea. This a third form of sleep apnea, but this is merely descriptive of an extremely rare case where a patient suffers from both OSA and CSA at the same time.

Symptoms and Treatment

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

While obstructive sleep apnea can affect anyone at any age, it is usually more prevalent in middle-age men, obese people, pregnant women and those who sleep predominantly on their backs.


There are a range of symptoms associated with possible OSA -- but these vary from person to person, and the condition needs to be professionally assessed by a doctor or specialist before a precise diagnosis can be made. 

This diagnosis is usually made after a monitored sleep test, which can be undertaken in a specialist center or at home.

Usual symptoms include:

  • Snoring
  • Dry mouth
  • Headaches
  • Lack of concentration
  • Daytime tiredness


There are a number of treatments for OSA -- and the condition can often be alleviated, if not cured, by simple changes in lifestyle or sleeping position. Avoiding excess alcohol and tobacco products can be of tremendous benefit for OSA sufferers -- as can a healthy diet and being physically active.

Types of treatment:

  • Positive Airway Pressure (PAP) devices to keep air passage open during the night
  • Oral appliance to hold the tongue in place
  • Medications can mitigate against daytime drowsiness but will not cure the disorder
  • Surgery may be necessary if the OSA is caused by physical issues such as excess oral tissue or malformation of the mouth or air passage.

Central Sleep Apnea

Although CSA also causes interruptions in the normal breathing pattern during sleep, the root cause of the condition is neurological rather than physical. This means there is no physical obstruction in the airway -- and the pauses are due to missing signals from the brain to the central nervous system.


Many CSA sufferers report few if any symptoms, but some have noticed the following:

  • Insomnia
  • Waking with shortness of breath
  • Moments of panic on awakening
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Difficulty in concentrating

In many cases doctors cannot identify a specific cause for the condition but some suspected causes include: opiates, altitude and issues with the heart.


Without identifying the underlying cause or causes of CSA it is difficult to treat the condition. PAP therapy can be beneficial but treating CSA may require the use of specialized PAP machines which can deliver the required air during sleep.

A doctor’s prescription is necessary for PAP therapy.

Treating CSA may require the use of several techniques – while alleviating the symptoms is the goal,  there is no “cure” for CSA.


The negative effects of either form of apnea should not be underestimated. Not only does it adversely impact  one's quality of life but, if left untreated, can also have serious medical consequences. 

Persons with OSA or CSA have a higher risk of developing circulatory issues and suffering from strokes and heart conditions.

Although there is no guaranteed method of avoiding the onset of OSA or CSA, there are certain steps that can be taken to minimize the risk of doing so:

  • Maintain a proper body weight
  • Cut down, or quit, smoking and the use of tobacco products
  • Only drink alcohol in moderation
  • Exercise regularly
  • Avoid sleeping on your back
  • Do not use drugs or other forms opiates

Despite taking preventative measures, there are still certain groups of people that are more prone to OSA and CSA than others. These include people with a hormonal imbalance or abnormality, medical issues, and/or a family history of sleep disorders.

Seeking professional guidance and help is the best way of controlling the effects of apnea and possibly even eliminating the problem entirely. If any of the early warning signs are noticed, especially loud snoring, they should not be simply shrugged off -- as the condition will only deteriorate over time and negatively impact not only one’s personal health but also one’s overall quality of life!

Do you have Obstructive Sleep Apnea? This simple test will help you know.