Sleep Apnea: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Key Takeaways

  • Sleep Apnea Overview: Sleep apnea is a common and potentially serious sleep disorder characterized by interrupted breathing during sleep. It is often underdiagnosed and can lead to various health complications.
  • Causes and Symptoms: Sleep apnea can be caused by factors like obesity, age, gender, family history, alcohol and sedative use, and more. Common symptoms include loud snoring, pauses in breathing, daytime sleepiness, headaches, and difficulty concentrating.
  • Treatment and Complications: Treatment options range from lifestyle changes and positional therapy to medical interventions like CPAP therapy and surgery. If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to cardiovascular problems, diabetes, weight gain, depression, and other health issues, emphasizing the importance of diagnosis and treatment.

Sleep is a vital component of our daily lives, essential for maintaining good physical and mental health.

However, for millions of people worldwide, sleep is anything but restful due to a condition known as sleep apnea.

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Sleep Apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder characterized by interrupted breathing during sleep.

This article delves into the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for sleep apnea, shedding light on a condition that often goes undiagnosed.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by repeated episodes of interrupted breathing during sleep.

These interruptions, or apneas, can last from a few seconds to minutes and may occur numerous times throughout the night.

They result from the temporary relaxation or collapse of the throat muscles and tissues, leading to the partial or complete obstruction of the airway.

This obstruction can reduce the flow of oxygen to the brain and other vital organs, disrupting the sleep cycle.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are three primary types of sleep apnea:

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA):

OSA is the most common form of sleep apnea and occurs when the throat muscles relax excessively, leading to airway obstruction.

It often results in loud snoring and choking sounds as the individual attempts to resume normal breathing.

Central Sleep Apnea (CSA):

CSA is less common and stems from a communication issue between the brain and the muscles responsible for breathing.

Unlike OSA, CSA does not involve a physical blockage of the airway, but it still leads to breathing disruptions during sleep.

Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome:

Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome is a subtype of sleep apnea that occurs when an individual initially presents with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) but subsequently develops central sleep apnea (CSA) upon receiving treatment, particularly with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy.

Unlike pure OSA or CSA, CompSAS combines elements of both conditions, making it a more intricate and often perplexing sleep disorder to manage.

Causes of Sleep Apnea

Several factors can contribute to the development of sleep apnea, including:

  1. Obesity: Excess weight, particularly in the neck area, can narrow the airway and increase the risk of OSA.
  2. Age: Sleep apnea is more common in older adults.
  3. Gender: Men are more likely to develop sleep apnea than women, though the risk for women increases if they are overweight, and it also appears to rise after menopause.
  4. Family History: A family history of sleep apnea can increase the risk of developing the condition.
  5. Sedative Use: Certain substances can relax throat muscles, increasing the risk of airway obstruction during sleep.
  6. Nasal Congestion: Conditions that obstruct nasal passages, such as allergies or a deviated septum, can contribute to sleep apnea.
  7. Medical Conditions: Conditions such as hypertension, heart failure, and diabetes are often associated with an increased risk of sleep apnea.
  8. Genetic Factors: Scientists have found a familial tendency for sleep apnea, suggesting that individuals with a family history of the condition may be at an increased risk, sleep expert Dr. Jing Zhang adds.The field of sleep apnea genetics is developing rapidly in recent years, and they have identified a promising gene. In addition, there are also shared genetic risks between sleep apnea and obesity.

Recognizing the Symptoms

Sleep apnea can have a significant impact on a person’s health and quality of life.

Recognizing the symptoms is crucial for early diagnosis and treatment.

Common symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  1. Loud Snoring: Frequent, loud snoring is a hallmark of sleep apnea, particularly in OSA cases.
  2. Pauses in Breathing: Witnessed pauses in breathing during sleep are a clear indicator of sleep apnea.
  3. Excessive Daytime Sleepiness: Individuals with sleep apnea often feel extremely fatigued during the day, regardless of how much they sleep at night.
  4. Morning Headaches: Waking up with a headache, especially in the morning, is a common symptom of sleep apnea.
  5. Difficulty Concentrating: Sleep apnea can impair cognitive function, making it challenging to concentrate, remember, or stay alert.
  6. Irritability: Mood swings and irritability are often associated with disrupted sleep patterns.
  7. Frequent Nighttime Urination: Known as nocturia, this symptom can occur due to sleep apnea’s impact on hormone regulation.
  8. Dry Mouth or Sore Throat: Individuals with OSA may wake up with a dry mouth or sore throat due to breathing through their mouth during sleep.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing sleep apnea typically involves a combination of clinical evaluation and sleep studies. The two most common diagnostic tests are:

  1. Polysomnography (PSG): This is an overnight sleep study conducted in a specialized sleep center. It monitors various physiological parameters, including brain activity, eye movement, heart rate, muscle activity, and breathing, to diagnose sleep disorders accurately.
  2. Home Sleep Apnea Test (HSAT): This portable device is often used to diagnose OSA. It measures breathing patterns, oxygen levels, and heart rate while the patient sleeps at home.

Once diagnosed, treatment options for sleep apnea include:

Lifestyle Modifications

  • Weight Loss: For individuals with obesity-related sleep apnea, losing weight through diet and exercise can significantly improve symptoms.
  • Positional Therapy: Some individuals experience sleep apnea primarily when sleeping on their back. Sleeping on one’s side can alleviate this issue.
  • Avoiding Alcohol and Sedatives: Reducing or eliminating the use of alcohol, sedatives, and narcotics can help prevent muscle relaxation and airway obstruction.
  • Regular Exercise: Engaging in regular physical activity can improve muscle tone and reduce the severity of sleep apnea.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)

The most common and effective treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea is the use of a CPAP machine.

This device delivers a continuous stream of air through a mask, keeping the airway open during sleep.

Oral Appliances

Dentists can fit patients with custom-made oral appliances that reposition the lower jaw and tongue to keep the airway open.


In severe cases or when other treatments are ineffective, surgery may be recommended to remove excess tissue from the throat, repair structural issues, or implant a nerve stimulator to control airway muscles.

Inspire Therapy

This newer treatment involves surgically implanting a device that stimulates the hypoglossal nerve to control tongue movement and prevent airway blockage during sleep.

Complications Involved in Sleep Apnea:

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder that can lead to a range of complications affecting various aspects of health and well-being.

When left untreated, sleep apnea can have a significant impact on both physical and mental health.

Here are some of the potential complications associated with sleep apnea:

1. Daytime Fatigue and Sleepiness:

Individuals with sleep apnea often experience excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue due to disrupted sleep patterns.

This can lead to decreased alertness, difficulty concentrating, and an increased risk of accidents, such as automobile crashes.

2. Cardiovascular Problems:

Sleep apnea is closely linked to several cardiovascular issues, including:

Hypertension (High Blood Pressure): Sleep apnea can raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular conditions.

Heart Disease: Sleep apnea is associated with an increased risk of coronary artery disease, arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms), and heart failure.

Stroke: Individuals with sleep apnea have a higher risk of both ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes.

3. Type 2 Diabetes:

Sleep apnea is a risk factor for insulin resistance and the development of type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes and sleep apnea often coexist, with each condition influencing the other.

Sleep apnea can worsen insulin resistance, contributing to diabetes, while diabetes can increase the risk of developing or exacerbating sleep apnea.

Managing both conditions is essential for overall health.

4. Metabolic Syndrome:

Metabolic syndrome and sleep apnea often co-occur, creating a vicious cycle.

Sleep apnea contributes to metabolic dysfunction, while the conditions associated with metabolic syndrome, such as obesity and hypertension, increase the risk of sleep apnea.

5. Weight Gain:

Sleep apnea and obesity often go hand in hand. Weight gain can exacerbate sleep apnea, and sleep apnea can contribute to weight gain, creating a cycle that can be challenging to break.

6. Depression:

There is a strong association between sleep apnea and depression. Chronic sleep deprivation and disruptions in sleep architecture can contribute to mood disorders.

7. Memory and Cognitive Problems:

Sleep apnea can impair memory, concentration, and cognitive function, making it difficult to perform daily tasks and affecting overall quality of life.

8. GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease):

Sleep apnea can lead to the development or worsening of GERD due to changes in pressure within the chest and the relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter.

9. Nocturia:

Sleep apnea may contribute to frequent nighttime urination (nocturia), as the condition can disrupt the balance of hormones responsible for regulating fluid levels in the body.

10. Decreased Libido and Sexual Dysfunction:

Sleep apnea can lead to decreased libido and sexual dysfunction in both men and women due to disrupted sleep patterns, fatigue, and alterations in hormone regulation.

Effective treatment of sleep apnea can often improve these intimate aspects of overall well-being.

11. Complications During Surgery and Anesthesia:

Individuals with sleep apnea are at a higher risk of complications during surgical procedures and when under anesthesia due to their increased sensitivity to sedative medications and the potential for airway obstruction.

12. Liver Problems:

Sleep apnea is associated with an increased risk of liver problems, particularly non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

Repeated episodes of oxygen desaturation and inflammation can contribute to the progression of liver disease.

13. Headaches:

Morning headaches are a common symptom of sleep apnea and can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life.

14. Exacerbation of Existing Conditions:

Sleep apnea can worsen existing health conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

15. Impaired Quality of Life:

The cumulative effects of sleep apnea can lead to a reduced quality of life, affecting relationships, work performance, and overall well-being.

It’s important to note that the severity of complications can vary from person to person and depends on factors such as the degree of sleep apnea, overall health, and the presence of other risk factors.

The good news is that many of these complications can be prevented or managed effectively with proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment, which may include lifestyle changes, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, oral appliances, surgery, or other interventions.

If you suspect you have sleep apnea or are at risk, seek medical evaluation and treatment to minimize the potential complications associated with this sleep disorder.

Sleep Apnea in Children:

Sleep apnea can affect children as well as adults. Common causes in children include enlarged tonsils and adenoids, obesity, and structural abnormalities.

Symptoms may include loud snoring, pauses in breathing, restless sleep, and daytime sleepiness.

Diagnosis often involves a sleep study, and treatment may include surgery, weight management, or devices like CPAP.

Dr. Jing Zhang adds that if the sleep apnea is caused by enlarged tonsils and adenoids, the frequently used therapy in children is a surgery to remove the tonsil and adenoid called adenotonsillectomy. However, medications like intranasal steroids have been developed to treat mild cases in recent years.

Early detection and intervention are crucial to address the potential impact of sleep apnea on a child’s growth and development.

Tips For Living With Sleep Apnea

Living with sleep apnea can be manageable with the right strategies and lifestyle adjustments.

Here are some tips to help you navigate life with sleep apnea:

  1. Follow Your Treatment Plan: If you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea, follow your healthcare provider’s recommended treatment plan diligently. This may include using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, oral appliances, or other therapies. Consistent use of prescribed treatments is essential for managing the condition effectively.
  2. Maintain a Healthy Weight: If you are overweight or obese, losing weight can significantly reduce the severity of sleep apnea. Even modest weight loss can make a noticeable difference in symptoms.
  3. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene: Develop healthy sleep habits, such as maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, creating a comfortable sleep environment, and avoiding stimulants like caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime.
  4. Sleep Position: Sleeping on your side rather than your back can help reduce the frequency and severity of sleep apnea episodes. You can use pillows or positional therapy devices to encourage side sleeping.
  5. Limit Alcohol and Sedatives: Avoid alcohol and sedative medications, especially in the evening, as they can relax the muscles in the throat, making airway obstruction more likely.
  6. Quit Smoking: If you smoke, quitting is not only beneficial for your overall health but can also reduce airway inflammation and improve sleep apnea symptoms.
  7. Regular Exercise: Engage in regular physical activity to help with weight management and overall health. However, avoid intense exercise close to bedtime, as it may disrupt your sleep.
  8. Elevate the Head of Your Bed: Raising the head of your bed by 30 to 45 degrees can help keep your airway open during sleep.
  9. Stay Informed: Educate yourself about sleep apnea and its management. Understanding your condition can empower you to make informed decisions and advocate for your health.
  10. Support System: Share your diagnosis with your loved ones and inform them about your treatment plan. Having a supportive network can help you adhere to your therapy.
  11. Regular Follow-Up: Schedule regular check-ups with your healthcare provider or sleep specialist to monitor your progress and make any necessary adjustments to your treatment plan.
  12. Travel Preparations: When traveling, make sure to bring your CPAP machine or other treatment equipment with you. Most modern CPAP devices are portable and suitable for travel.
  13. Seek Emotional Support: Dealing with sleep apnea can be emotionally challenging. Don’t hesitate to seek support from mental health professionals, support groups, or counselors who can help you cope with any emotional or psychological aspects of the condition.
  14. Home Remedies: Though they might not provide you with a medical solution, but Tart Cherry Juice is known to help in getting a good night’s sleep.


What is sleep apnea?

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by repeated pauses in breathing during sleep, often due to the collapse or obstruction of the airway.

What are the common types of sleep apnea?

The two primary types of sleep apnea are obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and central sleep apnea (CSA), with complex sleep apnea syndrome (CompSAS) combining features of both.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnea?

Common symptoms include loud snoring, pauses in breathing during sleep, excessive daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, and difficulty concentrating.

Who is at risk for sleep apnea?

Risk factors include obesity, family history, being male, having a thick neck, being older, smoking, and certain medical conditions.

How is sleep apnea diagnosed?

Diagnosis typically involves a clinical evaluation, medical history assessment, and sleep studies like polysomnography (PSG) or home sleep apnea tests (HSAT).

What are the health risks associated with untreated sleep apnea?

Untreated sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, mood disorders, and impaired cognitive function.

How is sleep apnea treated?

Treatment options include lifestyle changes, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, oral appliances, surgery, and positional therapy.

What can I do at home to improve sleep apnea?

Maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding alcohol and sedatives, sleeping on your side, and elevating the head of your bed can help reduce symptoms.

Can children have sleep apnea?

Yes, children can have sleep apnea. Common causes in children include enlarged tonsils and adenoids, obesity, and structural issues.

Is sleep apnea curable?

While it may not always be curable, it can be effectively managed with treatment and lifestyle changes, leading to improved sleep quality and overall health.

Can I drive if I have sleep apnea?

It depends on the severity of your sleep apnea and whether you are under effective treatment. Some regions have specific regulations regarding driving and sleep apnea, so it's important to check local laws.

Can I travel with my CPAP machine?

Yes, most CPAP machines are portable and suitable for travel. Be sure to bring it with you when traveling to maintain your treatment.

Does sleep apnea affect my insurance rates?

In some cases, sleep apnea may affect life or health insurance rates, but this can vary depending on the insurer and the severity of the condition. It's best to consult with your insurance provider for specific information.

Can I use natural remedies to treat sleep apnea?

Natural remedies may help alleviate symptoms to some extent, but they are not a substitute for medical treatment. Consult with a healthcare provider for appropriate management.


Sleep apnea is a common but often underdiagnosed sleep disorder that can significantly impact a person’s quality of life and overall health.

Recognizing the causes, symptoms, and available treatment options is crucial for managing the condition effectively.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea, seek medical attention and consultation with a sleep specialist to improve sleep quality and overall well-being.

Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can lead to better sleep, increased energy, and improved health.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

Sarah Anderson, Certified Sleep Science Coach Sarah Anderson

Sarah Anderson is a sleep, health, and wellness writer and product reviewer. She has written articles on changing and improving your sleep schedule, choosing the right mattress for chronic pain conditions, and finding the best pillow for you. Sarah Anderson has her Bachelor of Arts degree from Arizona State University in Journalism and Mass Communications. Prior to working for Zoma, she wrote for a variety of news publications. Sarah's work has been featured on Bustle, PureWow, and other publications.

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