Central Sleep Apnea

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on March 17, 2024
4 min read

Central sleep apnea (CSA) is when you regularly stop breathing while you sleep because your brain doesn’t tell your muscles to take in air. It’s different from obstructive sleep apnea, in which something physically blocks your breathing. But you can have both kinds together, called mixed sleep apnea.

Central sleep apnea usually happens because of a serious illness, especially one that affects your lower brainstem, which controls breathing. In very young babies, central sleep apnea causes pauses in breathing that can last 20 seconds.


The main symptom of CSA is pauses in breathing. It usually doesn’t cause snoring, the way obstructive sleep apnea does.

Symptoms also include:

  • Being very tired during the day
  • Waking up often during the night
  • Having headaches in the early morning
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Memory and mood problems
  • Shortness of breath, even upon waking


There are several types of central sleep apnea, each with a different cause.

  • Cheyne-Stokes breathing. This is when your breathing speeds up, slows down, stops, and then starts again. Each of these cycles can last 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Cheyne-Stokes breathing is common in people who’ve had heart failure or a stroke. It happens in about half of central sleep apnea cases.
  • Narcotic-induced central sleep apnea.Opioid medications like morphine, oxycodone, and codeine can affect your breathing patterns.
  • High-altitude periodic breathing. Many people have trouble breathing when they go up to a high elevation, usually 2,500 meters (8,000 feet) or more.
  • Treatment-emergent apnea. About 5% to 15% of people who have positive airway pressure treatment for obstructive sleep apnea get CSA.
  • Medical condition-induced apnea. Health problems like heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and severe kidney disease or kidney failure can cause CSA.
  • Idiopathic (primary) central sleep apnea. This is when there’s no clear cause.

A related condition called congenital central hypoventilation syndrome (CCHS or Ondine’s curse) is linked to a certain gene. It affects about one in 200,000 children around the world.

Anyone could have any of the types of sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea is more common among older people, especially those over 65. They may have health conditions or sleep patterns that make them more likely to get CSA.

Men are at higher risk of both central and obstructive sleep apnea.

Conditions that may be linked to central sleep apnea include:

A family member or bed partner might be the first to notice pauses in your breathing while you sleep.

Your doctor will do a physical exam, ask about your medical history, and recommend a sleep history.

You’ll probably have a sleep study called a polysomnogram. You’ll spend the night in a special lab, where specialists will monitor and record information about your sleep, including:

  • Electrical activity in your brain
  • Eye movement
  • Muscle activity
  • Heart rate
  • Breathing patterns
  • Air flow
  • Blood oxygen levels

The technologist will count how many times you stopped breathing while you slept and will grade how severe your apnea is.

Sleep studies can be done at home to assess obstructive sleep apnea, but may not be as effective in the diagnosis of central sleep apnea.

Treatment might depend on the cause of your apnea and might involve taking medicine for heart failure or stopping an opioid medication.

Some general sleep apnea treatments can also make you feel better. You could:

  • Keep a healthy weight.
  • Avoid alcohol and sleeping pills, which make your airway more likely to collapse while you sleep.
  • Sleep on your side instead of on your back.
  • Use nasal sprays or breathing strips to keep air flowing if you have sinus problems or nasal congestion.
  • Get plenty of sleep.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) can help people with all kinds of sleep apnea, especially CSA caused by heart failure.

A CPAP machine forces a constant stream of air into your nose and mouth through a mask you wear while you sleep. The air pressure is just enough to keep your upper airway tissues from collapsing and blocking your breathing. If you have trouble with CPAP, you might try similar devices called adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV) and bilevel positive airway pressure (BPAP).

A device called the Remede System can help with moderate to severe central sleep apnea. Your doctor implants a small machine under the skin in your upper chest. It helps trigger the nerve that moves your diaphragm when you breathe. It also monitors your respiratory signals while you sleep and helps restore regular breathing patterns.

Medications like acetazolamide (Diamox) and theophylline (Theochron) can stimulate breathing.

Any kind of sleep apnea can cause serious health problems, including a higher risk of:

Sleep apnea may also raise your risk of accidents at work or in the car because of fatigue.