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Your Healthy Family: Challenges of central sleep apnea at altitude

Sleep doctors and snoring specialists say they see a higher rate of central apnea at higher altitudes like here in Colorado. Sleep doctors and snoring specialists say they see a higher rate of central apnea at higher altitudes like here in Colorado.
COLORADO SPRINGS -

There are two types of sleep apnea.  Obstructive apnea which is a blockage of the airway and central which is when the brain doesn’t signal your body to breath.  Both can have deadly consequences if left untreated.  Sleep doctors and snoring specialists I spoke with locally say they do see a higher rate of central apnea at higher altitudes like here in Colorado.

Dr. Christina Cairns is a dentist who now exclusively treats patients for snoring and sleep apnea with oral appliances says, “Central apnea isn’t like obstructive sleep apnea where there's a tongue or some obstruction in the airway that cuts off off your airway.  It's more a brainstem problem where the brain basically forgets to breath and there are some people that suffer from it just by living here."

Dr. Timothy Rummel with UCHealth Memorial and Pulmonary Associates says, "You see more central apnea at our altitude, and there is a significant component of central apnea that is related to altitude.  In fact that is a lot of what gives people altitude sickness when they go up to Vail, and they don't sleep well the first few nights, that's central apnea the majority of the time."

The gold standard in treatment for sleep apnea is a C-PAP machine.  A person wears a mask while they sleep that creates positive air flow opening up the airway, but the higher rates of central apnea at altitude can make treating obstructive apnea more challenging.

Dr. Rummel says, “Where central apnea comes into play here, is when we put C-PAP on, which is the treatment for most people, we see a higher rate and higher prevalence of people exhibiting central apnea when they get the mask on.  That makes it more complicated, so about 5% to 10% of people will have central apnea made worse with their treatment."

Dr. Cairns adds, "There's a lot of different ways to approach apnea, but the most important thing is accurate diagnosis from the beginning.  That means getting a sleep study that will show central sleep apnea."

If you think you or your bed partner may have sleep apnea it's a very good idea to have a conversation with your doctor a sleep specialist or a snoring specialist to see if a sleep study is appropriate.

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