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Alaska Sleep Education Center

What Is Sleep Apnea? - A Refresher Course, Part 3

Posted by Jennifer Hines

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on Nov 28, 2018 3:31:00 PM

Central sleep apnea


PSG system showing a central apnea.

In pure central sleep apnea or Cheyne–Stokes respiration, the brain's respiratory control centers are imbalanced during sleep. Blood levels of carbon dioxide, and the neurological feedback mechanism that monitors them, do not react quickly enough to maintain an even respiratory rate, with the entire system cycling between apnea and hyperpnea, even during wakefulness.

The sleeper stops breathing and then starts again. There is no effort made to breathe during the pause in breathing: there are no chest movements and no struggling. After the episode of apnea, breathing may be faster (hyperpnea) for a period of time, a compensatory mechanism to blow off retained waste gases and absorb more oxygen.

While sleeping, a normal individual is "at rest" as far as cardiovascular workload is concerned. Breathing is regular in a healthy person during sleep, and oxygen levels and carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream stay fairly constant. Any sudden drop in oxygen or excess of carbon dioxide (even if tiny) strongly stimulates the brain's respiratory centers to breathe.

In central sleep apnea, the basic neurological controls for breathing rate malfunction and fail to give the signal to inhale, causing the individual to miss one or more cycles of breathing. If the pause in breathing is long enough, the percentage of oxygen in the circulation will drop to a lower than normal level (hypoxaemia) and the concentration of carbon dioxide will build to a higher than normal level (hypercapnia).

In turn, these conditions of hypoxia and hypercapnia will trigger additionaleffects on the body. Brain cells need constant oxygen to live, and if the level of blood oxygen goes low enough for long enough, the consequences of brain damage and even death will occur. However, central sleep apnea is more often a chronic condition that causes much milder effects than sudden death.

The exact effects of the condition will depend on how severe the apnea is and on the individual characteristics of the person having the apnea. Several examples are discussed below, and more about the nature of the condition is presented in the section on Clinical Details.

In any person, hypoxia and hypercapnia have certain common effects on the body. The heart rate will increase, unless there are such severe co-existing problems with the heart muscle itself or the autonomic nervous system that makes this compensatory increase impossible.

The more translucent areas of the body will show a bluish or dusky cast from cyanosis, which is the change in hue that occurs owing to lack of oxygen in the blood ("turning blue").

Overdoses of drugs that are respiratory depressants (such as heroin, and other opiates) kill by damping the activity of the brain's respiratory control centers. In central sleep apnea, the effects of sleep alone can remove the brain's mandate for the body to breathe.

  • Normal Respiratory Drive: After exhalation, the blood level of oxygen decreases and that of carbon dioxide increases. Exchange of gases with a lungful of fresh air is necessary to replenish oxygen and rid the bloodstream of built-up carbon dioxide. Oxygen and carbon dioxide receptors in the blood stream (called chemoreceptors) send nerve impulses to the brain, which then signals reflex opening of the larynx (so that the opening between the vocal cords enlarges) and movements of the rib cage muscles and diaphragm. These muscles expand the thorax (chest cavity) so that a partial vacuum is made within the lungs and air rushes in to fill it.

 

  • Physiologic effects of central apnea: During central apneas, the central respiratory drive is absent, and the brain does not respond to changing blood levels of the respiratory gases. No breath is taken despite the normal signals to inhale. The immediate effects of central sleep apnea on the body depend on how long the failure to breathe endures. At worst, central sleep apnea may cause sudden death. Short of death, drops in blood oxygen may trigger seizures, even in the absence of epilepsy. In people with epilepsy, the hypoxia caused by apnea may trigger seizures that had previously been well controlled by medications. In other words, a seizure disorder may become unstable in the presence of sleep apnea. In adults with coronary artery disease, a severe drop in blood oxygen level can cause anginaarrhythmias, or heart attacks (myocardial infarction). Longstanding recurrent episodes of apnea, over months and years, may cause an increase in carbon dioxide levels that can change the pH of the blood enough to cause a respiratory acidosis.

Mixed Apnea

Some people with sleep apnea have a combination of both types; its prevalence ranges from 0.56% to 18%. The condition is generally detected when obstructive sleep apnea is treated with CPAP and central sleep apnea emerges. The exact mechanism of the loss of central respiratory drive during sleep in OSA is unknown but is most likely related to incorrect settings of the CPAP treatment and other medical conditions the person has.

Management

The treatment of obstructive sleep apnea is different than that of central sleep apnea. Treatment often starts with behavioral therapy. Many people are told to avoid alcohol, sleeping pills, and other sedatives, which can relax throat muscles, contributing to the collapse of the airway at night.

Continuous positive airway pressure

 

CPAP machine with two models of full face masks

For moderate to severe sleep apnea, the most common treatment is the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or automatic positive airway pressure (APAP) device. These splint the person's airway open during sleep by means of pressurized air. The person typically wears a plastic facial mask, which is connected by a flexible tube to a small bedside CPAP machine.

With proper use, CPAP improves outcomes. Whether or not it decreases the risk of death or heart disease is controversial with some reviews finding benefit and others not. This variation across studies might be driven by low rates of compliance—analyses of those who use CPAP for at least four hours a night suggests a decrease in cardiovascular events.

Evidence suggests that CPAP may improve sensitivity to insulin, blood pressure, and sleepiness. Long term compliance, however, is an issue with more than half of people not appropriately using the device.

Although CPAP therapy is effective in reducing apneas and less expensive than other treatments, some people find it uncomfortable. Some complain of feeling trapped, having chest discomfort, and skin or nose irritation. Other side effects may include dry mouth, dry nose, nosebleeds, sore lips and gums.

To find out if you or a loved one have sleep apnea, contact Alaska Sleep Clinic today for your FREE 10-minute sleep evaluation.

Request A Sleep Assessment

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Topics: life with sleep apnea, OSA

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