Whether you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea or you simply suspect you might have it, you’re probably wondering what causes this disorder. The answer is complicated! There are different types of sleep apnea, and different causes. Because of this, the only way to know what’s causing your sleep apnea is to see a qualified professional for an evaluation and diagnosis.
What Is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a condition in which a person experiences pauses in breathing while they sleep. These pauses jolt the body out of the deep, restorative sleep we all need to function at our best—but they rarely awaken a person enough for them to realize what’s happened. The result is that people with sleep apnea often feel tired all day long without understanding why. This makes sleep apnea difficult to diagnose—most people don’t know they have it.
Types of Sleep Apnea
There are three different types of sleep apnea. Understanding which one you have is key to understanding what is causing your sleep disruptions.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
This is the most common type of sleep apnea. It occurs when the muscles inside the throat relax to the point where they obstruct the flow of air.
Central Sleep Apnea
This is a rarer form of sleep apnea, which is caused when the brain doesn’t send the proper signals to the muscles that control breathing.
Complex Sleep Apnea
This is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. It’s also sometimes known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on the causes of obstructive sleep apnea, as it’s the most prevalent type.
Causes of Obstructive Sleep Apnea
As mentioned above, obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the throat relax, narrowing the airway or even completely blocking it. When this happens, your blood oxygen level drops, which jolts you out of deep sleep so you can breathe normally again. People with sleep apnea usually snore loudly, and this snoring is accompanied by snorting, choking, or gasping whenever there’s a pause in breathing. Others around you may notice this occurring, while you probably won’t have any recollection of it—even if you’re awakening hundreds of times a night.
So obstructive sleep apnea is caused by throat muscles relaxing, but why do those muscles relax and block the airway in some people but not others? Here are the most common risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea.
- Obesity – This is one of the most frequent reasons for sleep apnea, and losing weight is one of the best solutions for it. Fat deposits in the upper airway can cause obstructions.
- Narrowed airway – A narrowed airway can have a number of causes, including genetics, orthodontic extractions, enlarged tonsils or adenoids, and bite issues.
- Age – Sleep apnea is more common in older adults, although even children can have it.
- Alcohol, drug use, and smoking – Alcohol and certain drugs (both legal and illegal) can relax the muscles in the airway, causing obstruction. Smoking increases inflammation and fluid retention in the airway.
- Nasal congestion – People who breathe through their mouths and have trouble breathing through their nose are more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea.
- Family history – Sleep apnea can run in families.
- Underdeveloped jaw sizes- If you have a short and narrow upper and lower jaw this can impact your breathing space by crowding your tongue to the back of your mouth.
Treating sleep apnea is important because it can have a tremendous impact on your overall quality of life. At TMJ Plus Wellness Center, we never take a one-size-fits-all approach to sleep apnea treatment. Instead, we work to determine why you’re experiencing sleep apnea so we can come up with a solution that truly addresses the underlying cause of your disorder.