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What causes sleep apnea?

There are two types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, and central sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the more common type, and is caused when the back of the mouth or throat is blocked. Individuals with obstructive sleep apnea stop breathing several times when they are asleep, because their airway is blocked. The blockage is often a combination of something structural, like large tonsils, a large or thick tongue, or a large uvula (the piece of tissue that hangs down from the top of your mouth), and the relaxation of the muscles in the mouth and throat when you sleep. These muscles can relax for many reasons – from laying on your back, weight gain, alcohol or medication, or simply being asleep. In most people their obstructive sleep apnea gets worse when they lie on their back (where gravity pushes everything backwards and makes the throat more narrow) or when they are in REM sleep. REM sleep is where all muscles are paralyzed (so you do not act out your dreams) and makes throat muscles relax even more. The combination of the physical blocking of the throat with the relaxed muscles creates a narrower than normal opening, making it more difficult to breathe normally. Central Sleep apnea is much different The respiratory centers of the brain mistakenly think that the lungs are full of air and are often not sending the signal from the brain to the lungs to breathe. This can be caused by a brain tumor, brain malformation, lung disease (or in some cases cardiac disease). This type of sleep apnea much less common and is far more difficult to treat.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.