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What’s the Difference Between Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Central Sleep Apnea?

Sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, have become more and more common in the U.S. It’s estimated that 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, with a large percentage of undiagnosed cases.

Sleep apnea is a respiratory disorder characterized by an intermittent reduction or cessation of breathing during sleep, causing non-restorative sleep, excessive fatigue and other issues. There are two prominent types of sleep apnea. Knowing the difference between obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea will help medical professionals understand, diagnose and treat your sleep apnea disorder.

What Are the Two Types of Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

The most common type of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), is a condition in which a person’s breathing interruptions are caused by a blockage of the airway. Typically, this blockage is a result of the throat muscles intermittently relaxing during sleep and constricting the airway. The chest muscles and diaphragm are forced to work harder to open up the blocked airway and draw air into the lungs. Risk factors for OSA include obesity, a narrowed airway, family history, nasal congestion, use of alcohol and smoking.

Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is a condition in which your breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep. This sleeping disorder occurs because the brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control your breathing. It may also occur as a result of other conditions, such as heart failure, stroke or old age.

While there are only two different types of sleep apnea, there is a third that describes when a person suffers from a combination of both OSA and CSA called complex sleep apnea syndrome. Complex sleep apnea presents itself like OSA but also holds characteristics of CSA.  This type of sleep apnea is still being researched.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) Vs. Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)

A number of signs and symptoms of OSA are identical to those in CSA, making it difficult to distinguish the two. So, what is the difference between OSA and CSA? When looking at an OSA vs. CSA case, you’ll notice distinct variations in breathing patterns, as well as underlying conditions and lifestyle habits that may influence one condition over the other.

In OSA, a person makes a notable effort to breathe, however the airway in the back of the throat is blocked. The blockage in the back of the throat causes an obstruction to the windpipe, disturbing oxygen balance and causing fragmented sleep.

In CSA, the problem is not a blocked airway. A CSA patient experiences periodic pauses of breathing because the brain and muscles that control breathing are not functioning properly. There is no normal respiratory effort, unlike in OSA.

Because an OSA is a mechanical problem, it can almost always be corrected by a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device. Treatment of CSA is much more challenging because the signal to the body to inhale is not transmitted from the breathing center in the brain or not received by the body. The key to treating CSA is by first addressing the underlying health conditions causing the condition.