Causes of sleep apnea largely depend on whether the problem is obstructive or central.

Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)

CSA syndromes may be categorized into 2 groups; primary (syndromes without an underlying cause) and secondary (a condition occurring as a consequence of another condition). Basically, CSA occurs when the brain fails to relay the required signals to the breathing muscles leading to an abnormal breathing pattern while one is asleep.   

Some common causes of CSA include:

  • heart failure,
  • strokes,
  • some congenital abnormalities,
  • A weak breathing pattern referred to as Cheyne-Stokes breathing
  • Certain medications like codeine, morphine and oxycodone.
  • Surgery or radiation treatments in the spine
  • Arthritis in the cervical spine
  • high altitude

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

As the name suggest, obstructive sleep apnea has everything to do with the normal blockage of air flow into the lungs. What happens is that, your throat muscles relaxes too much to allow normal breathing to occur. With the throat muscles relaxed, the airway closes or narrows as you try to inhale. This shallow breathing can take place for about 10-20 seconds. Usually, this lowers the oxygen levels in the blood and cause an upsurge of carbon dioxide levels.

You brain senses this abnormal breathing and wakes you so that you can breathe normally. This awakening is normally so brief that patients do not remember it. It comes with choking, snorting, or gasping of breath.

This pattern can repeat itself 5-30 times each hour, all night long. It is important to note, these disruptions affect your ability to get the desired, restful sleep. You will most likely feel sleepy the next day.

Obstructive sleep apnea therefore can occur due to several reasons. They include:

  • nasal congestion
  • narrow airway passages
  • a deviated nasal septum,
  • enlarged tonsils
  • vocal cord injury
  • lowered vocal tone (may be caused by alcohol or medications)
  • weak pharyngeal muscles,
  • The tongue retracting to the back of the throat.
  • facial trauma which leads to distorted airway passages

Some other risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea and obstructed airflow include:

  • Alcohol and some sedative medications (leading to lax pharyngeal muscles, tongue, and soft palate)
  • Upper respiratory infections ( these may lead to swollen and narrow nasal passages), and
  • Neuromuscular illnesses (such as stroke, which can lead to frail airway muscles),
  • Weight gain and obesity (leading to narrow airways)

Sleep apnea can interfere with your productivity, health, and sense of well being. Therefore, it is always good to keep away from some of the avoidable risk factors such as alcohol, cigarettes, and medications, to ease the effects of sleep apnea.