You may know that sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes the sufferer to stop breathing periodically while asleep. You may know that aside from unpleasant symptoms like snoring, daytime fatigue, and difficulty focusing, it also comes hand-in-hand with life-threatening risks like stroke and heart failure. But you may also know that when treated, sleep apnea’s deadly risks can be eliminated.

But did you know that sleep apnea itself is an umbrella term for three different sleep disorders? While we often use the term generically, knowing which kind of sleep apnea you have is imperative to properly treating it.

sleep apnea diagram

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

The most common type of sleep apnea is called obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA. It’s named that way because with this condition, it’s a physical obstruction to the airway that causes the sleeper to stop breathing.

Although the causes for obstructive sleep apnea are varied, it all comes down to the soft tissues in the throat: The tongue, the tonsils, and the adenoids. Perhaps the wrong sleeping position is causing those tissues to obstruct breathing, or maybe the tissues are larger than normal, or inflamed from allergies or respiratory issues. Obesity increases the risk of obstructive sleep apnea, but sometimes it’s simply genetics.

This kind of sleep apnea is often treated with a device called CPAP, but can also be treated with an oral appliance if CPAP disagrees with you.

Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea, or CSA, is less common, and comes without the trademark snoring that heralds obstructive sleep apnea. Rather than a blocked airway, it’s your brain that stops you from breathing when you have central sleep apnea. This type of sleep apnea is usually secondary to other conditions, such as Parkinson disease, heart failure, or brainstem or spinal dysfunction.

Unfortunately, oral appliance therapy and lifestyle changes, such as weight loss and exercise, are ineffective against central sleep apnea. More important is the treatment of the underlying condition. While CPAP can be used to treat central sleep apnea, it can also cause the disorder to worsen.

The good news is, many cases of central sleep apnea are temporary and largely asymptomatic. If you aren’t experiencing the symptoms, it may be best to not treat it at all.

Complex Sleep Apnea

This third type, known as mixed or complex sleep apnea, isn’t really a third type, just a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea. While it is a recent discovery, research shows that as much as 15% of patients diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea may actually have complex sleep apnea.

People with complex sleep apnea will experience symptoms of both kinds of sleep apnea, and may find that treatment targeted at one type of sleep apnea only solves half of the problem. Sometimes, those with central sleep apnea even develop obstructive sleep apnea once they become dependent on CPAP treatments.

Your sleep apnea cannot be properly treated without a complete understanding of the type of sleep disorder you are experiencing. An experienced sleep dentist can help you navigate your sleep apnea. Call (303) 691-0267 or contact us online today to make an appointment.