What Causes Different Types of Sleep Apnea?

A man lies sleeping in a bed. He is wearing a CPAP machine. The sheets, pillows, and blanket are all white in color. There is a window to the man’s left.

Did you know that according to the American Sleep Apnea Association, over 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea? That means over 20% of adults have this sleep disorder, even though more than 80% of mild to moderate sleep apnea cases go undiagnosed. Sleep apnea can be very dangerous because it reduces blood oxygen levels, putting people at a higher risk of heart disease and other health problems over time. Observing the symptoms of sleep apnea is an important part of the diagnostic process, so many people don’t realize they have breathing problems during sleep until someone else notices or they schedule sleep apnea screenings and treatments.

Even though breathing problems are common among many different people with sleep apnea, you might not know that there are actually three different types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), central sleep apnea, and combined sleep apnea. Read on to find out the causes of sleep apnea and how they relate to each type.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Causes and Conditions

Obstructive sleep apnea happens when the upper airway is physically blocked during sleep, causing difficulty breathing and poor sleep quality. OSA is the most common type of sleep apnea and is common among many demographics of adults, increasing in likelihood with age among older adults. There is also a slight increase in likelihood among males and African-Americans. Causes of obstructive sleep apnea include a variety of medical conditions and characteristics, including:


Studies indicate that a 10% weight gain by someone who is already overweight or obese can increase the risk of sleep apnea by six times. In addition to excess weight putting more stress on the throat muscles, obesity can also cause your neck to become larger, increasing pressure on your airway. Many people with obesity-induced sleep apnea find that losing weight helps reduce or even eliminate their sleep apnea.

Lung problems

Lung problems are another common cause of sleep apnea, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. If you’re a chronic smoker, have allergies, or suffer from asthma or other lung conditions, these are all risk factors for developing OSA.

Family history

Unfortunately, you might have gotten more than your dad’s nose and your mom’s eyes  — family history is another common cause of sleep apnea. If you have family members who suffer from OSA, you might also be at risk, especially if you and the relative in question share a trait that can worsen sleep apnea, such as a thick neck, round head, large tonsils, or deviated septum.

Genetic conditions 

Some genetic conditions such as Downs syndrome, cleft palate, and congenital central hypoventilation syndrome, among others, can cause a person to have smaller than average facial bones or a smaller airway. These can contribute to causing sleep apnea.

Heart or kidney failure

Kidney and heart failure can cause fluid buildup in your neck, obstructing your airway and interfering with sleep.


During pregnancy, people’s bodies change to accommodate the growth of a baby. This means that fat and muscle tissue redistribute. Some doctors have found that because of this and other factors, pregnancy can cause sudden-onset OSA.

Certain sleep positions

One sleep apnea cause that many people are surprised by is sleeping position. If you frequently sleep on your back, you might be narrowing your airway during sleep with this position. Many healthcare professionals recommend trying side sleeping as a method to test out if your obstructive sleep apnea is caused by back sleeping. 

Central Sleep Apnea: Causes and Conditions

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is not a physical problem with airway blockage. Instead, it’s a neurological problem. Central sleep apnea is caused by the brain failing to signal the airway to open and close appropriately during sleep. It is much more common among men and makes up only a small percentage of sleep apnea cases. Some of the causes of this kind of sleep apnea include:

Heart attacks

If you’ve had a heart attack, your brain’s ability to signal to your airway might be weakened. Heart attacks can damage the electrical connections in your brain, meaning you might end up developing CSA.

Parkinson’s disease

Several links between Parkinson’s disease and central sleep apnea have been confirmed through various studies. Because Parkinson’s involves a deterioration of brain tissue and thus affects the nervous system, it's possible that Parkinson’s may be a cause of sleep apnea.

Alcohol or opiate medications

Excessive consumption of alcohol, as well as taking opiate medication, can overly “relax” your throat tissue, causing the airway to collapse. Central sleep apnea is often seen in people with opiate addictions due to this problem.


In some cases, doctors can’t attribute a specific cause to CSA. This is called primary or “idiopathic” central sleep apnea.

Combined Sleep Apnea

When a person experiences both obstructive and central sleep apnea symptoms, they are said to have "combined" sleep apnea. It isn't currently standard practice to attribute a single cause or condition to combined sleep apnea because it is so varied and will change based on the treatment a person experiences. To treat combined sleep apnea, medical professionals usually try to determine if an underlying factor such as obesity or lung health can be changed or improved before following up with treatment options.

Are You at Risk?

If you think you’re at risk of any type of sleep apnea or suspect you might already be experiencing sleep apnea, get in touch with Bloom Dental of Arlington right away. Our state-of-the-art screening and oral implant treatment options will have you finally sleeping restfully! Contact us to learn more or schedule an appointment today.

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