WebMD Logo Icon
WebMD Connect to Care helps you find services to manage your health. When you purchase any of these services, WebMD may receive a fee. WebMD does not endorse any product, service or treatment referred to on this page. X

4 Possible Causes of Sleep Apnea You Should Know

By John McGuire
Medically Reviewed by Lisa Shives, MD, FAASM on August 30, 2021
If your bed partner tells you that you stop breathing at night, you may have sleep apnea. Learn more about the causes of this disorder.

When you have sleep apnea, you intermittently stop breathing while sleeping. The two main forms of the disorder are obstructive sleep apnea (due to a physical blockage of the airway) and central sleep apnea (due to impaired brain signalling). “Knowing what kind of sleep apnea you have and its severity is foundational for establishing an appropriate treatment plan,” Bradley Eli, DMD, MS, a sleep medicine expert in Encinitas, Calif., tells WebMD Connect to Care. It can also be helpful to understand the risk factors for the condition. Here, we discuss some common sleep apnea causes.


The most common cause of obstructive sleep apnea is mechanical obstruction due to obesity. When you gain weight, there is an increase in fat deposits in the soft tissues of the throat. This excess tissue temporarily blocks your airway, causing sleep apnea, according to Cleveland Clinic. Obstructive sleep apnea symptoms can include the following:

  • Loud snoring
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Morning headaches
  • Dull, foggy thinking
  • Dry mouth and sore throat
  • Depression or anxiety

“The best treatment for obesity-related sleep apnea is weight loss, but because sleep apnea causes fatigue, many people get stuck in a downward spiral unless they get some form of treatment," says Eli. 

Anatomy Issues

There are several structures in the oral cavity that can cause obstructive sleep apnea, even if you are not obese, according to Penn Medicine. These anatomy features include:

  • An irregularly-shaped airway: Certain abnormalities in the shape of the airway can predispose it to collapse. This can also happen with the roof of your mouth, also known as the palate.
  • A small jaw bone: A small jaw bone relative to the upper jaw can increase your risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Tongue hypertrophy: The medical term “hypertrophy” means enlarged. A large tongue can fall back into the airway, causing obstruction.
  • Tonsil and adenoid hypertrophy: Large tonsils and adenoids can also block the airway and cause the disorder. 

Brain Signalling Issues

Issues with impaired brain signalling would be categorized as central sleep apnea, which is rarer than obstructive sleep apnea. Here, the problem is not because of obstruction, but because the brain is not sending the proper signals to the body to breathe. According to Mayo Clinic, the following factors are associated with central sleep apnea:

  • Congestive heart failure
  • Stroke
  • Opioid use
  • End-stage kidney disease

Symptoms of central sleep apnea are similar to obstructive sleep apnea, but snoring is less prominent. The treatments are more limited and include treating the underlying cause, mechanical forced air devices, and supplemental oxygen.


There is a significant association between smoking and obstructive sleep apnea. It’s estimated that people who smoke are 3 times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea than those who have never smoked, according to Mayo Clinic. Therefore, the prospect of developing this disorder can serve as a powerful motivator for smoking cessation. 

Think you may have sleep apnea? You can start your journey to more restful sleep TODAY.

Untreated sleep disorders can negatively affect your physical and emotional health. Sleep testing can help you get the answers you need to receive the treatment you deserve. WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.