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Your Healthy Family: The difference between obstructive and central sleep apnea

Living at altitude like we do in Colorado can be a factor for some people who deal with sleep apnea. Living at altitude like we do in Colorado can be a factor for some people who deal with sleep apnea.
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Living at altitude like we do in Colorado can be a factor for some people who deal with sleep apnea.  Dr. Timothy Rummel is a board certified sleep specialist with UCHealth Memorial and  Pulmonary Associates in Colorado Springs.  

Dr. Rummel says, “It's pretty interesting because for about half of the population altitude makes a big difference.  You look at about half of the patients and their sleep apnea is definitely worse the higher in altitude they go.  About half the patients have about the same degree of sleep apnea no matter where they are.”

To better understand how altitude plays a role in sleep apnea, it's important to clearly understand the two types of apnea, obstructive and central and the difference between them. Dr. Christina Cairns is a Colorado Springs dentist who specializes exclusively in snoring, sleep apnea and oral appliances.

Dr. Cairns says, “Altitude can affect apnea in a few different ways.  If you are a visitor to Colorado Springs and you're coming from a lower altitude, people can have kind of an acute onset of central sleep apnea"

Central and obstructive sleep apnea are both are when a person's breathing is interrupted during sleep.  Obstructive apnea is caused by your anatomy, and central apnea is caused by your brain.

Dr. Rummel adds, “The majority of sleep apnea is obstructive, which is related to snoring.  The airway blocks off when they fall asleep, that's what causes drops in your oxygen level, and interruptions by arousals to get breathing again, that's about 95% of all sleep apnea.  About 5% of apnea is central, and that's when your brain actually takes pauses telling you to breath.  So in obstructive apnea your brain continues to tell you to breath, your throat closes off, and in central it's actually the brain that has cessation of the respiratory drive over and over."

Symptoms of central and obstructive sleep apnea include fatigue, problems with memory, and  waking up gasping or choking to name just a few.  While snoring remains exclusive to obstructive apnea, either condition left untreated can have deadly consequences.  

Dr. Cairns says, “The most important thing is accurate diagnosis from the beginning."

We'll tell you what's involved in an accurate diagnosis and more about why altitude plays in role in sleep apnea in our next story.

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