If you have sleep apnea, you stop and start breathing repeatedly while you sleep. This causes drops in your body’s oxygen levels and frequent sleep disruptions, both of which can affect the quality of your sleep.
There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. A third type, complex sleep apnea, involves having symptoms of both obstructive and central sleep apnea.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea involves a partial or total blockage of airflow to your lungs while you sleep. The muscles of your tongue and/or trachea (the tube that brings air from your nose and mouth to your lungs) relax while you sleep. In people with obstructive sleep apnea, these muscles relax too much, causing the airway to collapse many times during sleep.
Most people with obstructive sleep apnea snore, and about 25% of patients with this condition have excessive daytime sleepiness. Other symptoms you may experience if you have obstructive sleep apnea include:
- Attention or memory problems
- Frequent urination
- Headaches after waking up
- Heartburn at night
- Irritability or anxiety
- Waking at night
In addition, obstructive sleep apnea may worsen many other health conditions, such as:
About 70% of people with obstructive sleep apnea also have obesity, which can place added pressure on the tissues of the throat and neck. The remaining 30% of patients have blockages caused by airway abnormalities, such as larger-than-normal tonsils or a smaller-than-normal inner throat.
Central Sleep Apnea
Unlike obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea isn’t the result of a physical blockage in the airway. If you have central sleep apnea, your brain doesn’t send the signals needed to keep your respiratory system breathing while you sleep.
Central sleep apnea is more common in patients who have heart failure, as well as those who take narcotics or other sedative medications. Some patients on positive airway pressure (PAP) treatment for obstructive sleep apnea may also develop central sleep apnea.
You can lower your risk for central sleep apnea by talking to your doctor about alternatives to any sedative medications you take and avoiding sleeping on your back.
Insomnia, which involves difficulty or an inability to fall asleep and/or stay asleep, is the most common sleep disorder. Lack of sleep can lead to many symptoms, such as:
- Anxiety, depression and/or irritability
- Lack of energy
- Trouble focusing on necessary tasks
Many factors can cause or worsen insomnia, including:
- Poor sleep habits
- Shift work (i.e., working at night and sleeping during the day)
Narcolepsy involves feeling extremely drowsy during the day, as well as “sleep attacks” — overwhelming urges to sleep that you may not be able to resist. People with narcolepsy may sometimes experience sleep paralysis (an inability to move or speak while falling asleep or waking up), hallucinations or other issues relating to their condition, including other sleep disorders.
Night terrors, sleepwalking and sleep eating are all types of events that happen during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. These conditions can affect both children and adults.
NREM Events in Children
Young children between 3 and 5 are the ones who most often experience night terrors, sleepwalking and sleep eating. These events can be traumatic for patients. Your child may not be able to tell you what scared them during a night terror.
If your child sleepwalks, they may perform activities that can be dangerous, such as leaving the house or falling down the stairs. Fevers, illnesses, or frightening or stressful events can trigger night terrors, sleepwalking or sleep eating in children.
Our team of pediatric sleep experts treat childhood sleep disorders through the Sleep Medicine program at Baystate Children's Hospital.
NREM Events in Adults
Obstructive sleep apnea is a potential cause of night terrors, sleepwalking and sleep eating in adults. Stress and other emotional or behavioral health issues can cause sleepwalking in adults as well.
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) involves discomfort in the legs and feet during the evening and night. You may feel like you need to move your legs in order to ease this discomfort. RLS can make it harder for you to fall or stay asleep, and you may wake up occasionally during the night to move your legs.
RLS is common among middle-aged and older adults. Causes of RLS can include: