6 Common Types of Sleep Apnea, Diagnosis and Treatment

6 Common Types of Sleep Apnea, Diagnosis and Treatment

Overview of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a common and potentially serious sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing or shallow breathing during sleep. These breathing interruptions, known as apneas or hypopneas, can occur repeatedly throughout the night, disrupting normal sleep patterns and leading to a range of health complications. Sleep apnea is classified into several types, with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) being the most prevalent form. In this post we will learn about 6 common types of sleep apnea, diagnosis and treatment.


6 Common Types of Sleep Apnea, Diagnosis and Treatment

Understanding the distinct characteristics and mechanisms of each type of sleep apnea is essential for accurate diagnosis and targeted treatment interventions. Let’s delve into each type of sleep apnea in detail:


  1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA):

Definition: Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most prevalent form of sleep apnea, characterized by recurrent episodes of complete or partial upper airway obstruction during sleep.

Mechanism: During sleep, the muscles in the throat and tongue relax. In individuals with OSA, these muscles relax excessively, leading to the collapse or narrowing of the upper airway. This obstruction restricts airflow, resulting in breathing pauses or shallow breathing, disrupting normal sleep patterns.

Risk Factors:

  • Obesity: Excess weight, especially around the neck, can increase the risk of airway obstruction.
  • Anatomical Factors: Structural abnormalities such as enlarged tonsils, a large tongue, or a narrow airway can contribute to OSA.
  • Age: OSA becomes more common with age due to changes in muscle tone and tissue elasticity.
  • Gender: Men are more likely than women to develop OSA, though the risk increases in postmenopausal women.
  • Family History: Genetics may play a role in predisposing individuals to OSA.


  • Loud and persistent snoring
  • Episodes of gasping or choking during sleep
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Morning headaches
  • Dry mouth or sore throat upon waking
  • Difficulty concentrating and irritability

Diagnosis: Diagnosis of OSA typically involves a sleep study (polysomnography), where various physiological parameters are monitored during sleep to detect breathing abnormalities and assess the severity of the condition.


  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP): CPAP therapy involves wearing a mask connected to a machine that delivers a continuous flow of air to keep the airway open during sleep.
  • Oral Appliance Therapy: Custom-fitted oral appliances reposition the jaw and tongue to prevent airway obstruction.
  • Surgery: Surgical interventions, such as uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) or maxillomandibular advancement, may be considered for severe cases.


  1. Central Sleep Apnea (CSA):

Definition: Central sleep apnea (CSA) is characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep due to the brain’s failure to send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing.

Mechanism: Unlike OSA, where physical obstruction of the airway occurs, CSA stems from a dysfunction in the central respiratory control centers in the brainstem. This dysfunction disrupts the coordination of breathing efforts, leading to apneic episodes.

Risk Factors:

  • Heart Failure: CSA is commonly associated with congestive heart failure, especially in advanced stages.
  • Stroke or Brainstem Injury: Damage to the brainstem or certain neurological conditions can disrupt respiratory control mechanisms.
  • Narcotic Pain Medications: Opioid medications can suppress respiratory drive and exacerbate CSA.


  • Breathing pauses during sleep, often without associated snoring
  • Daytime fatigue and excessive sleepiness
  • Difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep
  • Mood disturbances and cognitive impairments

Diagnosis: Diagnosis of CSA involves a comprehensive sleep evaluation, including polysomnography, to differentiate it from OSA and other sleep disorders.


  • Positive Airway Pressure Therapy: Adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV) devices can help stabilize breathing patterns by delivering varying levels of air pressure in response to changes in respiratory effort.
  • Supplemental Oxygen: Oxygen therapy may be used in conjunction with positive airway pressure therapy to improve oxygenation during sleep.
  • Medications: Certain medications, such as acetazolamide or opioid antagonists, may be prescribed to stimulate breathing and improve respiratory control.


  1. Complex or Mixed Sleep Apnea:

Definition: Complex or mixed sleep apnea refers to a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea patterns occurring in the same individual.

Mechanism: Individuals with complex sleep apnea exhibit characteristics of both OSA and CSA, with episodes of upper airway obstruction and central breathing cessation during sleep.

Diagnosis and Treatment: Management of complex sleep apnea typically involves a tailored approach that addresses both obstructive and central components of the disorder. Treatment options may include a combination of CPAP therapy, adaptive servo-ventilation, and adjunctive measures to optimize respiratory function and improve sleep quality.


  1. Hypopnea:

Definition: Hypopnea refers to abnormally shallow or slow breathing during sleep, resulting in a reduction in airflow. Unlike apneas, where breathing stops completely, hypopneas involve partial obstruction of the upper airway, leading to decreased airflow and oxygen levels.

Mechanism: Hypopnea often occurs due to partial collapse or narrowing of the upper airway during sleep, resulting in increased resistance to airflow. This obstruction may be caused by factors such as relaxation of throat muscles, anatomical abnormalities, or excess tissue in the throat.

Risk Factors:

  • Obesity: Excess fat deposits around the neck and throat can increase the risk of airway obstruction during sleep, contributing to hypopnea.
  • Anatomical Factors: Structural abnormalities in the upper airway, such as enlarged tonsils, a large tongue, or a deviated septum, can predispose individuals to hypopnea.
  • Age: As individuals age, changes in muscle tone and tissue elasticity may increase susceptibility to airway collapse during sleep.
  • Sleep Position: Sleeping in a supine position (on the back) may exacerbate hypopnea by allowing gravity to further collapse the airway.


  • Daytime Sleepiness: Excessive daytime sleepiness is a common symptom of hypopnea, as disrupted sleep patterns and inadequate oxygenation during the night can lead to fatigue and drowsiness.
  • Morning Headaches: Waking up with headaches, dry mouth, or a sore throat may occur due to reduced oxygen levels and disturbed sleep.
  • Cognitive Impairment: Hypopnea can impair cognitive function, leading to difficulties with concentration, memory, and decision-making.

Diagnosis: Diagnosis of hypopnea typically involves a sleep study (polysomnography), where episodes of reduced airflow and associated oxygen desaturation are monitored during sleep.

Treatment: Treatment of hypopnea often focuses on addressing underlying causes and optimizing sleep quality. Depending on the severity and contributing factors, interventions may include weight loss, positional therapy, oral appliance therapy, or positive airway pressure therapy.


  1. Sleep-Related Hypoventilation Disorders:

Definition: Sleep-related hypoventilation disorders are characterized by inadequate ventilation during sleep, resulting in elevated levels of carbon dioxide (hypercapnia) and decreased levels of oxygen (hypoxemia) in the blood.

Conditions: Two common sleep-related hypoventilation disorders include:

  • Obesity Hypoventilation Syndrome (OHS): OHS is characterized by obesity, daytime hypercapnia, and sleep-disordered breathing, including hypoventilation during sleep.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) with Hypoventilation during Sleep: Individuals with COPD may experience hypoventilation during sleep, particularly during REM sleep when respiratory drive is reduced.

Mechanism: Sleep-related hypoventilation disorders often result from a combination of factors, including impaired respiratory mechanics, reduced respiratory drive, and inadequate gas exchange during sleep.


  • Daytime Hypersomnolence: Excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue are hallmark symptoms of sleep-related hypoventilation disorders.
  • Morning Headaches: Waking up with headaches or feeling unrested despite adequate sleep duration may occur due to poor sleep quality and respiratory disturbances.
  • Cognitive Dysfunction: Cognitive impairments, including difficulties with attention, memory, and executive function, may result from chronic sleep fragmentation and hypoxemia.

Diagnosis: Diagnosis of sleep-related hypoventilation disorders involves comprehensive sleep evaluation, including polysomnography and assessment of arterial blood gases to confirm hypoventilation during sleep.

Treatment: Treatment of sleep-related hypoventilation disorders aims to improve ventilation and gas exchange during sleep while addressing underlying respiratory conditions. Interventions may include positive airway pressure therapy, supplemental oxygen, bronchodilator medications, and lifestyle modifications.


  1. Positional Sleep Apnea:

Definition: Positional sleep apnea refers to a subtype of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) where breathing disturbances predominantly occur when an individual is sleeping in specific positions, such as the supine (on the back) position.

Mechanism: In positional sleep apnea, gravity plays a significant role in exacerbating airway collapse and obstruction during sleep. When individuals sleep on their back, the tongue and soft tissues of the throat are more likely to fall back and block the airway, leading to apneas and hypopneas.

Risk Factors:

  • Sleep Position: Sleeping in the supine position increases the risk of positional sleep apnea, especially in individuals with underlying OSA.
  • Obesity: Excess weight can further predispose individuals to airway collapse during sleep, exacerbating positional sleep apnea.
  • Anatomical Factors: Structural abnormalities in the upper airway, such as a narrow airway or enlarged tonsils, may increase susceptibility to positional sleep apnea.


  • Loud Snoring: Snoring, particularly when sleeping on the back, is a common symptom of positional sleep apnea.
  • Witnessed Apneas: Bed partners or family members may observe episodes of apnea or choking sounds during sleep, especially in the supine position.
  • Excessive Daytime Sleepiness: Individuals with positional sleep apnea may experience daytime fatigue and sleepiness due to disrupted sleep patterns.

Diagnosis: Diagnosis of positional sleep apnea involves sleep evaluation, including polysomnography with positional monitoring to assess changes in apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) based on sleep position.

Treatment: Treatment of positional sleep apnea typically involves positional therapy to encourage side sleeping and reduce the frequency of apneas and hypopneas. This may include using positional pillows, wearing devices that discourage supine sleeping, or adopting sleep posture training techniques. In some cases, additional treatments for obstructive sleep apnea, such as positive airway pressure therapy or oral appliance therapy, may be necessary to effectively manage the condition.



Understanding the nuances of each type of sleep-related disorder is crucial for accurate diagnosis and targeted treatment interventions. By addressing underlying mechanisms and implementing appropriate management strategies, individuals affected by these conditions can achieve better sleep quality and overall health outcomes. Collaboration between healthcare professionals, including sleep specialists, pulmonologists, and otolaryngologists, is essential for comprehensive evaluation and tailored treatment planning.

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