WebMD Logo Icon
WebMD Connect to Care helps you find services to manage your health. When you purchase any of these services, WebMD may receive a fee. WebMD does not endorse any product, service or treatment referred to on this page. X

3 Types of Sleep Apnea You Should Know

By Kyle Kirkland
Medically Reviewed by Lisa Shives, MD, PC on August 30, 2021
Sleep apnea comes in a variety of forms and can create dangerous complications in the absence of treatment. Here is everything you need to know about the three main types of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that causes your breathing to repeatedly stop and start, according to Mayo Clinic. Although sleep apnea is one disorder, there are different types of the condition. Here’s more about the three main types of sleep apnea. 

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

“Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common variety of sleep apnea,” Abhinav Singh, M.D., medical review panelist at the Sleep Foundation and Medical Director of the Indiana Sleep Center, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

Mayo Clinic reports that obstructive sleep apnea begins with the relaxation of the muscles in the back of the throat. This relaxation causes your airway to constrict as you inhale and therefore lowers oxygen levels in your blood. The body will often briefly awaken at this point, in an attempt to reopen the airway. 

Although you may not remember waking up, this process may recur throughout the night, damaging your ability to get proper sleep. 

Factors that contribute to obstructive sleep apnea include allergies, hypothyroidism, and a deviated septum. Hereditary anatomical factors also frequently contribute to the condition. “Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in obese individuals, people who have larger necks with narrow throat anatomy, or people with larger tongues,” Singh explains.

Your brain and body need time to recharge, which is what should happen when you sleep. According to Mayo Clinic, some complications that can result from obstructive sleep apnea include:

  • Sleepiness and fatigue throughout the day
  • Medication or surgery complications
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and abnormal heartbeats

Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea differs from obstructive sleep apnea because it doesn't originate in the physical blockage of your airways. 

Mayo Clinic notes that, with central sleep apnea, the primary issue lies in the brain. A disruption in the brain’s transmission of signals to the muscles that control breathing leads to the same oxygen deprivation and sleep disturbances that obstructive sleep apnea causes. 

Central sleep apnea occurs more frequently in older people over the age of 65, because this population is more likely to have health conditions or sleep patterns that predispose them to the condition. 

Additionally, the following heart disorders increase the risk of developing central sleep apnea, according to Mayo Clinic:

  • Atrial fibrilation (irregular heartbeat)
  • Congestive heart failure (in which the heart muscles do not pump enough blood to the body)

Other factors that are linked to central sleep apnea are medications and even environmental factors. “Central sleep apnea can be seen in people using certain medications such as pain medication and people who live at higher altitudes,” Singh says. 

Mixed Sleep Apnea

“Mixed sleep apnea includes features of central and obstructive sleep apnea,” Singh says. 

In some cases, the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine can subsequently cause central sleep apnea to develop. This is known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea. 

A CPAP machine is a continuous positive airway pressure machine that pushes a steady stream of air through a mask into your body. It can keep your airways open and prevent any blockages to allow you a better night’s sleep. 

CPAP machines are an effective treatment option for many people with obstructive sleep apnea, and the development of treatment-emergent central sleep apnea due to CPAP use is often temporary. 

In fact, a 2018 systematic review published by the Annals of Thoracic Medicine found that the majority of studied patients who developed central sleep apnea as a result of treatment for obstructive sleep apnea with a CPAP machine eventually stopped having central sleep apnea after a period of a few weeks to months. 

Understanding the root causes of any sleep apnea—be it obstructive, central, or mixed—is key to determining the right treatment plan for you. An overnight sleep study that analyzes your breathing during sleep is often a great place to start. 

Think you may have sleep apnea? You can start your journey to more restful sleep TODAY.

Untreated sleep disorders can negatively affect your physical and emotional health. Sleep testing can help you get the answers you need to receive the treatment you deserve. WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.