Causes of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that affects nearly 22 million Americans. It is often a result of multiple health conditions culminating in obstructed airways during deep levels of sleep. Sleep apnea treatment is more effective when the causes are sleep apnea are understood and appropriately managed.

Obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea are caused by different factors, while complex sleep apnea is caused by a number of factors associated with both OSA and CSA.

Causes Of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

A diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea means your throat muscles relax, leaving your airways too narrowed or completely obstructed by relaxed tissue. Your brain quickly senses that you can’t breathe and will wake you up just enough to restart your breathing.

Most people tend to choke, snort, or gasp as they start breathing again, but it is unlikely that this reaction will disrupt their sleep, though it can disturb the sleep of a partner sharing the bed.

Multiple factors can contribute to the onset of obstructive sleep apnea. If you have OSA, it could have been caused by one or more of the following triggers:


One of the more common causes of sleep apnea is being medically obese. While there are some people who develop sleep apnea who have a normal body mass index (BMI), it is far more common in those who have a BMI of 30 or higher.

Obesity can cause sleep apnea as fat deposits build up around your upper airway, constricting this area. Compound that with the slight amount of muscle relaxation which is normal while sleeping, and OSA can be triggered.

Family Medical History

Your family medical history can play a part in you developing sleep apnea. Some of the risk factors for sleep apnea in families can come down to inherited features and structures such as an overbite or recessed chin and larger-than-average tonsils. Other family risk factors behind OSA can be how your family members genetically carry weight.

Whatever the cause, if you have family members who have sleep apnea, then you have a higher likelihood of also having OSA.


An effect of aging is that you lose muscle over time. This loss affects the muscles in your throat as well as the rest of your body. So, your throat muscles relax at night and don’t retain enough strength to keep the tissue around your throat from collapsing onto your airway, leading to sleep apnea.

Alcohol, Tranquilizers, and/or Sedatives

The use of alcohol, tranquilizers, and sedatives can leave your muscles relaxed and compound any obstructive sleep apnea you are already experiencing. If you are already diagnosed with OSA, you should do your best to avoid these substances.

Male Gender

More men are found to have sleep apnea than women.

Nasal Congestion

Nasal congestion has a tendency to narrow your airway due to the mucus in your throat. While temporary congestion is not usually a problem, chronic nasal congestion can lead to OSA.

Narrow Airway

Due to genetics or because your airway is narrow due to large tonsils or adenoids, a narrow airway can cause OSA. Those who have sleep apnea due to a narrow airway are often children, as enlarged adenoids and tonsils can be largely in the way of the smaller throats of young children.

Neck Size

The circumference of your neck can cause you to develop sleep apnea. Those with significantly larger necks have more tissue which can press against their airway, causing OSA.


Those who smoke greatly increase the chance that they will develop OSA. This increased risk factor is due to how smoking can cause inflammation in the upper airway, narrowing your throat. Smoking also can cause fluid retention, creating more pressure on your upper airway.

Causes Of Central Sleep Apnea

Central sleep apnea is far less common than obstructive sleep apnea. This form of sleep apnea is caused by your brain failing to transmit the correct signals to the muscles which control your breathing. The failure of your brain signals can be caused by a number of things:

Heart Issues

Heart troubles, such as heart failure, can lead to central sleep apnea. Researchers have connected CSA to heart failure by showing that heart failure can influence the brain’s control of the respiratory system, causing it to lose control.


Experiencing one or more strokes highly raises your chances of having CSA or complex sleep apnea syndrome. Part of this is due to the fact that a stroke tends to cause disorder in the brain and another part is due to the fact that leading up to a stroke, there are also other risk factors such as high blood pressure.


Aging is a factor in both OSA and CSA. While the aging muscles are the cause of OSA, when you have CSA with aging as the trigger, it is very likely due to cognitive decline, such as dementia.  

Narcotic Medications

Narcotic medications which contain opioids and/or benzodiazepines can interfere with your brain’s neurological communication pathways which control your breathing. Long-term use of opioid painkillers or other drugs can lead to permanent issues.

Male Gender

CSA is also more common in men than in women. However, unlike with OSA, it is unclear why men struggle with CSA at a higher rate than women.

Correct Sleep Apnea With The Right Tools

For those who have sleep apnea, there are tools which can help you manage your sleep disorder, specifically the AutoPAP machine.

An AutoPAP machine uses positive airway pressure to maintain open airways while you sleep. It automatically adjusts the air pressure in response to your breathing patterns. Unlike a traditional CPAP machine, the AutoPAP machine emits low-pressured air first so you can easily fall asleep. Then the pressure increases as you enter deeper levels of sleep at which time most obstructive sleep apnea occurs.

If you are ready to start the process of managing your sleep apnea, fill out our sleep apnea patient questionnaire, and we will be in contact with you soon to help you through this process.