When patients ask me about sleep apnea, most often they are referring to obstructive sleep apnea, characterized by repetitive throat collapse while asleep. There is another type of sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, where a person will stop breathing, but the throat remains open.
Central sleep apnea occurs when a person breathes too slowly or not deep enough. It can occur in the setting of brain, heart, or lung diseases. In heart failure, central sleep apnea can be a problem, and not all cardiologists are aware of it.
The symptoms of central sleep apnea can be similar to those seen in obstructive sleep apnea, such as restless sleep, daytime sleepiness or extreme fatigue, and unusual breathing patterns while asleep (usually observed by a bed partner).
Although central sleep apnea gets less attention than the more common obstructive sleep apnea, both deserve to be treated since both conditions can increase mortality rates. However, the treatment for each sleep apnea type can be different, making it important to figure out the exact type of sleep apnea that is affecting the patient.