Category Archives: Sleep Apnea Causes

Sleep Apnea is one of the most common sleeping disorders in America; over 18 million Americans suffer from the disease. Although there is no vaccine to completely prevent the development of Sleep Apnea, understanding the causes of the sleeping disorder can make the symptoms easier to point out. Because Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the most common form of apnea, airway obstruction is the most common cause of the sleeping problem.

Airway Construction

The natural shape and size of each individual is as unique as their fingerprints. No two people in the entire world share the same physical make-up, and no two people in the world have the same airway construction. Unfortunately, some people are born with naturally narrower airways than others. It is much more likely that a patient with a small neck, and small airways, will develop Sleep Apnea; gravity naturally pulls the sides of the airways down into the throat during sleep. 

Physical Abnormalities

Physical abnormalities in areas of the body that affect the upper respiratory system can compromise the size and strength of the airway. 

  • Craniofacial: Patients who experience birth defects that cause them to have craniofacial abnormalities are at a high risk of developing Sleep Apnea or other sleeping disorders. Apnea caused by craniofacial abnormalities like cleft palate, mid face hypoplasia, and micrognathia is common at any age, but it is most often seen in newborns and young children.
  • Nasal: The nasal passages are important components of the upper respiratory system, and can easily host problems that can lead to Obstructive Sleep Apnea in patients. Many apnea patients have naturally slimmer airways, and they can become obstructed by mucus much easier. Other nasal abnormalities, like having a deviated septum, prevent the nasal passages from functioning correctly and can predispose patients to respiratory disorders like Sleep Apnea.
  • Trauma: Severe trauma to the head, face, jaw, neck, or chest can cause the airway to shift, making it hard to breathe. Many of the people suffering from Sleep Apnea experienced a shifting of their physical structure due to intense traumatic experiences, automobile accidents especially.


The upper airway is a very delicate passageway for inspiration and expiration. The opening of the upper airway, in the back of the throat, is just as delicate and can easily become obstructed. When components of the upper throat become enlarged, the excess tissues can cause friction and resistance in the airway, resulting in the stopping of breath. Enlarged muscles and tissues are the culprits of the sleeping disorder in many apnea patients, especially children. When the tonsils, adenoids, uvula, or tongue become enlarged, they are much more likely to fall back into the throat and obstruct the process of breath during sleep. In many cases, people are born with tonsils or a tongue that are overtly large in comparison to the size of the opening of the windpipe.

Muscle Tone

When the muscles of the upper throat and/or upper airways become too relaxed, the fall down into the airway and obstruct the passage of breath in patients with Obstructive Sleep Apnea. The muscles that control the soft palate, the uvula, the tonsils, the tongue, and the collapsibility of the upper airway respond to outside influences and become lax. When the muscles relax, the size of the airway becomes narrower during inspiration. As the airway narrows, breathing stops causing an episode of apnea to commence. The brain is able to receive messages from the respiratory system telling the body that it needs to breathe, and the sleeper is briefly aroused from sleep to commence breathing.


Obstructive Sleep Apnea occurs when the collapsible tissues that underlie the upper airway collapses and breath can no longer travel through the passage efficiently. Overweight or obese patients are at a much high risk for experiencing OSA due to the excess weight around their neck and throat. Extra fatty tissue on around the neck adds pressure to the already delicate airway muscles. Overweight patients, especially those who sleep on their backs, run a very high risk of experiencing muscle collapse in the respiratory system.

Neurological Malfunctions

Central Sleep Apnea is caused by problems in the centers of the brain that control respiratory functioning. The brain fails to respond to changes and messages from the body’s respiratory system. If breathing becomes interrupted during sleep, and the brain is not receiving pleas from the respiratory system for the resuming of breath, breathing does not continue and the patient experiences an episode of apnea. 

Existing Health Problems

Patients who are pre-exposed to health issues are more likely to develop Sleep Apnea than healthy patients.

Below is a list of pre-existing health conditions that can cause Sleep Apnea:

  • Upper Respiratory Issues: Cold, Flu, Sinusitis, Etc.
  • Heart Disease
  • Stroke
  • Pregnancy
  • Menopause
  • Encephalitis
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Arthritis
  • Brain Stem Injury
  • Brain Damage
  • Jaw Placement
  • Bulbar Poliomyelitis
  • Cervical Spine Injury or Radiation
  • Primary Hypoventilation Syndrome
  • Large Neck Size 

Aging Process

While it is possible for people of all ages to develop Sleep Apnea, there is a much higher chance of finding the disorder in infants and the elderly. As an infant, there is a small amount of muscle strength and control supporting the upper respiratory symptom; it is very common to find newborns with Sleep Apnea, but most babies grow out of the disorder relatively quickly. Like the young, the elderly share a high risk of developing respiratory disorders like apnea. As the body ages, the brain’s ability to control the muscles of the body weaken. It becomes harder for the brain to keep the muscles that support the collapsible airways stiff and supportive.


Substance induced Sleep Apnea is common, especially in adults who take sedative medications. Many sedative medications like narcotic tranquillizers and muscle relaxers depress the nervous system; many recreational drugs are also depressants and can depress the nervous system. When the nervous system becomes depressed, it can lead to additional muscle relaxation in the body, greatly increasing the risks of apnea episodes. The muscles that control and support the respiratory system slow and cannot properly respond to messages regarding the breathing process in Central Sleep Apnea patients.

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