Types of Sleep Apnea: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Types of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing or shallow breathing during sleep. There are several types of sleep apnea, each with its own distinct characteristics and treatment approaches. Understanding the different types is crucial for proper diagnosis and management. Let’s explore the various types of sleep apnea in detail:

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common form of sleep apnea, accounting for approximately 84% of cases. It occurs when the muscles in the throat relax excessively during sleep, causing the airway to collapse or become blocked. This obstruction leads to pauses in breathing, disrupting the flow of oxygen to the body and brain. Here are some key points about OSA:

  • Individuals with OSA often experience loud snoring, gasping for air during sleep, and daytime sleepiness.
  • Obesity, excess weight, smoking, alcohol consumption, and nasal congestion are common risk factors for OSA.
  • Untreated OSA can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and cognitive impairment.
  • Treatment options for OSA include lifestyle changes (weight loss, avoiding alcohol and sedatives), continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, oral appliances, and surgical interventions (such as uvulopalatopharyngoplasty or jaw advancement surgery) in severe cases.

Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is less common than OSA and occurs when the brain fails to send signals to the muscles responsible for controlling breathing. Unlike OSA, where airway obstruction is the primary cause, CSA involves a lack of respiratory effort. This lack of effort results in pauses in breathing during sleep. Here’s what you need to know about CSA:

  • CSA may occur as a result of underlying medical conditions such as heart failure, stroke, brainstem lesions, opioid use, or neurological disorders (such as Parkinson’s disease or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).
  • Symptoms of CSA include frequent awakenings during the night, shortness of breath, difficulty staying asleep, and fatigue during the day.
  • Diagnosis of CSA often involves a sleep study (polysomnography) to monitor breathing patterns, oxygen levels, and respiratory effort during sleep.
  • Treatment options for CSA may include addressing underlying medical conditions, positive airway pressure therapy (such as CPAP or bi-level positive airway pressure [BiPAP]), medications (such as acetazolamide or opioids), or adaptive servo-ventilation devices.

Mixed Sleep Apnea

Mixed sleep apnea, also known as complex sleep apnea, is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. It occurs when an individual initially experiences central apneas but transitions to obstructive events during the same sleep period. Mixed sleep apnea presents unique challenges in diagnosis and treatment, requiring a comprehensive approach to address both types of apneas effectively.

Positional Sleep Apnea

Positional sleep apnea is a subtype of obstructive sleep apnea that occurs primarily when an individual sleeps in certain positions, such as on their back. In this position, gravity can cause the tongue and soft tissues of the throat to collapse, obstructing the airway and leading to breathing pauses or shallow breathing. Treatment for positional sleep apnea often involves positional therapy, which encourages individuals to sleep in positions that minimize airway obstruction.

Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome (CompSAS)

Complex sleep apnea syndrome (CompSAS), also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, occurs when an individual with obstructive sleep apnea develops central sleep apnea after initiating positive airway pressure therapy. CompSAS presents challenges in treatment, as it requires addressing both obstructive and central components simultaneously.


Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that can significantly impact an individual’s health and quality of life if left untreated. By understanding the different types of sleep apnea and their characteristics, individuals can better recognize symptoms and seek appropriate treatment. If you suspect you may have sleep apnea or are experiencing symptoms such as loud snoring, daytime fatigue, or difficulty concentrating, consult a healthcare provider for further evaluation and management. Prioritizing sleep health is essential for overall well-being and quality of life.