What Causes Central Sleep Apnea?

Central sleep apnea is a less common type of sleep apnea that involves the central nervous system. Unlike obstructive sleep apnea, which is caused by a physical blockage in the airway, central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing. This lack of communication results in brief pauses in breathing during sleep.

Understanding Central Sleep Apnea

Defining Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea is defined by a pattern of disrupted breathing during sleep, characterized by the temporary loss of respiratory effort. In these episodes, the diaphragm and chest muscles, which are responsible for breathing, receive no directives from the brain to continue their function, resulting in pauses in breathing that can last for a few seconds to minutes. The quantity and regularity of these pauses can vary significantly, making central sleep apnea a condition with a wide spectrum of severity.

Types of Central Sleep Apnea

There are several subtypes of central sleep apnea, each with its own underlying causes and characteristics. These include idiopathic central sleep apnea, Cheyne-Stokes respiration, associated with congestive heart failure, and central sleep apnea due to medical conditions without Cheyne-Stokes respiration. There is also a type induced by high altitude periodic breathing, which can occur when individuals are exposed to high altitudes.

Causes of Central Sleep Apnea

The causes of central sleep apnea can be multifaceted, involving one or more contributing factors. Understanding these causes is crucial for diagnosis and treatment.

Neurological Disorders

Certain neurological conditions can interfere with the brain’s ability to send signals to the breathing muscles. For instance, a stroke, brain tumor, or a neuromuscular disease like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) could impact the brainstem where breathing control centers are located.

Heart Failure

Central sleep apnea can also develop in individuals with congestive heart failure. The reduced efficiency of the heart can lead to disruptions in the body’s carbon dioxide and oxygen levels, which in turn affect the respiratory control centers in the brain.

Opioid Use

The use of opioid medications, which are known to affect the respiratory center in the brain, can lead to central sleep apnea. Even when used as prescribed, these drugs can alter breathing patterns and cause central sleep apnea or exacerbate existing sleep-disordered breathing.

High Altitude Periodic Breathing

Exposure to high altitudes can sometimes trigger central sleep apnea. This happens because the body reacts to lower oxygen levels by increasing breathing rate, which may then overshoot, leading to a temporary cessation of breathing altogether.

Idiopathic Central Sleep Apnea

Sometimes, the cause of central sleep apnea remains unknown. In such cases, the condition is referred to as idiopathic central sleep apnea, where there is inherent instability in the respiratory control center of the brain.

Other Medical Conditions

Additional health issues such as kidney failure, certain forms of heart disease other than congestive heart failure, and other neurological diseases could potentially contribute to the onset of central sleep apnea.

Diagnosis of Central Sleep Apnea

Diagnosing central sleep apnea typically involves a thorough medical history and physical examination, as well as monitoring sleep patterns either with a home sleep apnea test or an in-lab sleep study.

Home Sleep Apnea Testing

A home sleep apnea test is a simplified version of an in-lab study that can record vital sleep-related data as a patient sleeps in their own home. These devices can help detect abnormal breathing patterns that might indicate central sleep apnea.

In-Lab Sleep Study

The most comprehensive way to diagnose sleep apnea is through an in-lab sleep study, also known as polysomnography. During this overnight exam, a patient’s brain waves, oxygen levels, heart rate, breathing patterns, and movements are recorded. This test can accurately differentiate between central sleep apnea and other types of sleep-disordered breathing.

Management and Treatment of Central Sleep Apnea

Treatment of central sleep apnea often depends on the severity of the condition, as well as the underlying causes. It can involve the following approaches:

Addressing Underlying Conditions

If central sleep apnea is due to another medical condition, managing that condition is a priority. For example, proper treatment for heart failure or neuromuscular disorders may improve sleep apnea symptoms.

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Positive Airway Pressure Therapies

Positive airway pressure (PAP) devices, including continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines or adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV), might be prescribed. ASV has been specifically designed to treat various forms of central sleep apnea by adjusting the pressure delivered based on detected breathing patterns.


In certain cases, medications might be used to stimulate breathing. However, drugs are not the primary treatment for central sleep apnea, and their use would be determined on a case-by-case basis, typically when other treatments are ineffective.

Supplemental Oxygen

Sometimes oxygen supplementation is administered to ensure the body receives enough oxygen during sleep, but this treatment does not directly address the cessation of breathing.

Lifestyle Changes

Modifying lifestyle factors, such as treating obesity, reducing alcohol consumption, and avoiding sleeping pills or other sedatives that may worsen breathing patterns during sleep, can also be part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Finishing Thoughts

Central sleep apnea is a complex condition influenced by a range of factors, from neurological disorders to heart conditions. Its detection and management require careful evaluation and often a multidisciplinary approach. While it is less common than obstructive sleep apnea, understanding its causes and receiving appropriate treatment can greatly improve quality of life and prevent possible complications. If you suspect you or a loved one may be experiencing symptoms of central sleep apnea, it is essential to consult with a healthcare provider who can guide diagnostic and treatment plans tailored to the individual’s needs.


  • Dominic Johnson

    Hello! I’m Dominic Johnson, the whimsical wizard behind the world of sleep at GoodSleepHub.com. With a background in Sleep Psychology and a quirky love for all things dozy and dreamy, I bring a sprinkle of fun to bedtime blues. I've spent my career unraveling the mysteries of the Sandman, turning dense science into cozy bedtime stories. When I'm not buried in research papers or testing the fluffiness of the latest pillows, I'm usually found playing impromptu lullabies on my old guitar for my twin daughters or teaching my labrador, Rocket, new tricks. My approach to sleep is simple: blend science with a touch of magic and a hearty laugh.

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