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What REALLY causes Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea does not let you get a good night's sleep and creates frustration for you and your partner. Read our article on what is the actual cause of sleep apnea and the risk factors associated with developing sleep apnea.

Symptoms of sleep disorders include problems with sleep quality, timing, and amount, and can often result in impairment of function during the day. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder. Sleep apnea occurs when a person stops and starts breathing repeatedly during their sleep. This pattern can have some serious outcomes, and sleep apnea must be treated to avoid further complications. First, however, in this article, we wanted to address what actually causes sleep apnea. 

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles right in the back of your throat relax while you sleep, causing an obstruction of the upper airway and limiting breathing. These muscles are relied upon to support the soft palate, the uvula (a triangular-shaped piece of tissue hanging from the soft palate), tonsils, the side walls of the throat, and the tongue. Hence, when these muscles relax, it causes a bit of a problem. 

The airway narrows and, in some cases, closes while you breathe in, not allowing enough air for you to continue breathing normally. This can cause lower oxygen levels in the blood. This occurrence triggers the brain to notice your inability to breathe normally and wakes you up to reopen the airway. For the most part, this brief wake-up is so short that it isn't remembered - however, it interrupts restorative sleep, and often you will wake up tired. In some cases, you may choke, gasp or snore in reaction to the airway closing.

Central sleep apnea is a less common form of sleep apnea; the cause is a little different. Central sleep apnea occurs when your brain fails to send the necessary signals to your breathing muscles during sleep. As a result, you do not exert any effort to breathe for a short time. Shortness of breath might awaken you or make it hard for you to fall or stay asleep.

So, that's the technical "cause" of sleep apnea in terms of the mechanics of our bodies causing the disorder. 

Although anybody can have sleep apnea, including children, some risk factors can contribute to the likelihood of a diagnosis. While these aren't necessarily "causes," they are worth mentioning as factors that should be considered and monitored to minimise the risk of developing sleep apnea.

So what risk factors are associated with a higher likelihood of developing sleep apnea? 

Gender: Males are more prone to Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is more common in men than in women. The risk is doubled or tripled by simply being male.


The prevalence of sleep apnea among older adults is significantly higher. Approximately 1 in 4 men over the age of 30 suffer from sleep apnea to some extent.

Family history

You may be at greater risk if you have family members who suffer from sleep apnea.

Excess weight

There is a strong correlation between obesity and sleep apnea. It is possible to have obstructions to your breathing due to fat deposits around your upper airway. Over half of those with obstructive sleep apnea are overweight or obese. However, compared to adult obesity, childhood obesity is less commonly associated with obstructive sleep apnea.

Neck circumference

Airways may be narrower in people with thicker necks. The risk of obstructive sleep apnea is much higher for men with neck circumferences above 43 centimetres and women with neck circumferences above 38. 

A narrowed airway

You might have simply been born with a narrow throat. However, it is also possible for tonsils or adenoids to enlarge and block an airway; this is especially common in children. On the topic of children - a large overbite is another common cause of sleep apnea.

A round head

The shape of your head can also lead to an increased risk of sleep apnea.

Consumption of alcohol, sedatives or tranquillisers 

Obstructive sleep apnea can be worsened by these substances because they relax the muscles in your throat.


Smoking cigarettes triples the chance that you could develop sleep apnea. An increase in inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airways can be caused by smoking.

Nasal congestion

If the anatomical makeup of your nose makes it difficult to breathe, the chances of developing sleep apnea are higher. This also applies for allergies creating difficulty with breathing. 

Medical Conditions 

Several conditions can increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea, including; Congestive heart failure, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's disease, polycystic ovary syndrome, hormonal disorders, prior strokes, and chronic lung diseases such as asthma. 

Hopefully, discussing these common causes of sleep apnea has helped you get a better grasp of what type of sleep disorder OSA is and where it comes from. The good news is that sleep apnea is a highly treatable sleep disorder, and you can avoid future health problems. Just as some common causes can create higher risk, lifestyle changes such as weight loss can lower the risks associated with sleep apnea.

Additionally, using a CPAP device while sleeping is a prevalent and effective treatment for sleep apnea to keep the throat from collapsing during sleep. If you believe you may have OSA and want to speak to an expert about both lifestyle changes and the possibility of beginning treatment such as positive airway pressure (The PAP at the end of CPAP, APAP and Bipap).

So no matter the cause, come in and speak to one of our sleep specialists to discuss a comfortable and successful path forward and ensure that your sleep schedule can get back to normal. Lacking restorative sleep can affect your life in several ways. Sleep apnea is a frustrating condition that often leads to poor sleep quality. This doesn't have to be the way; there is a way forward to a healthier and happier you.

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