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Similar to obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), central sleep apnea (CSA) occurs when your breathing pauses periodically during sleep. In some cases, people with CSA don’t stop breathing, but instead experience rapid, shallow breathing, which can result in an overall lack of oxygen.

The core difference between the two lies in what causes them: Obstructive sleep apnea is a mechanical problem—it happens when your airway is physically blocked. Central sleep apnea, on the other hand, occurs when the signal for your lungs to inhale isn’t properly transmitted to your brain. Though CSA is less common, this form of the disorder can be just as dangerous.

Signs and Symptoms

Intermittent pauses in breathing is the main symptom of central sleep apnea, but there are others, including:

  • Fatigue
  • Trouble focusing
  • Waking during the night
  • Headaches
  • Lack of energy

Unlike obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea rarely causes snoring.

Risk Factors:

  • Heart disorder like irregular heartbeats (Atrial Fibrillation) or CHF
  • Stroke, brain tumor or a structural brainstem lesion
  • Opioid use
  • CPAP
  • High altitude
  • Age (65+)
  • Gender (Males are more likely to develop CSA)

Testing and Treatment

To test for central sleep apnea, your physician may refer you to a specialist to conduct a sleep apnea test. A polysomnogram, or sleep study, is a comprehensive test that transmits and records specific physical activities while you sleep, such as your heart rate, brain activity, eye movement and oxygen levels, through a series of electronic sensors placed on your legs, head and chest.

If you are diagnosed with CSA, there are a variety of potential treatments your doctor may recommend. First and foremost, it’s helpful to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This means keeping fit, avoiding alcohol and other depressants and getting plenty of rest.

To help keep your airway functioning as you sleep, your doctor may recommend a PAP machine. This device forces air through your nose and/or mouth to ensure you get enough oxygen as you sleep. Other treatments include certain medications can also be prescribed or an implantable device to help stimulate breathing.

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