What Are Sleep-Related Breathing Disorders?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2020

Sleep disorders that cause difficulty breathing during sleep are some of the most common sleep problems. Snoring is the best-known symptom. These disorders can occur in adults, infants, and children. Daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and problems with concentration are common side effects.1

Types of sleep-related breathing disorders

There are many types of sleep-related breathing disorders. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common. Sleep-related breathing disorders are usually diagnosed with a test called a polysomnogram or with a home sleep apnea test.1

Obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is a temporary stop in breathing during sleep. It is caused when tissue in the back of the throat or tongue blocks the airway. Signs of this type of sleep apnea include heavy snoring, choking, gasping, or pauses in breathing while sleeping. It is more common in men than women.1

Central sleep apnea

Central sleep apnea is a temporary stop in breathing during sleep. It is caused by a problem in the heart or brain, not by tissue blocking the airway. This type of sleep apnea is most often found in people with other serious health conditions such as heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, or opioid use.1

Sleep-related hypoventilation disorder

Sleep-related hypoventilation includes a group of disorders that cause low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels in the blood during sleep. Some sleep-related hypoventilation disorders are caused by genetic factors. Other cases may be the result of certain medicines or other conditions. Examples of conditions that may cause sleep-related hypoventilation include:2

  • Obesity
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • A neurological condition like a spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)

Sleep-related groaning

Sleep-related groaning is also known as catathrenia. It happens when someone who is asleep makes a long, loud, groaning sound as they exhale (breathe out). It often ends in a grunt or sigh. Groans tend to repeat for 2 minutes to 1 hour, sometimes many times all through the night. This condition is fairly rare and more common in men. While it tends to bother a bed partner, this groaning does not cause other health problems the same way sleep apnea does.1

Infant sleep apnea

Infant sleep apnea occurs when a baby pauses in their breathing while asleep. This may be obstructive, central, or mixed sleep apnea. Mixed apneas are most common in small, premature infants. Larger premature infants tend to have central apneas. Infant sleep apneas are caused by an immature brainstem or another medical condition.1

Childhood sleep apnea

Childhood sleep apnea is usually obstructive sleep apnea. It occurs in about 2 out of every 100 children. Most of these children snore loudly and may pause and gasp for air. Mouth breathing and sleeping in unusual positions are common.

Research into sleep-related breathing disorders

More than 2,000 studies were underway worldwide in 2020 to learn more about sleep-related breathing disorders. Doctors are looking for new drugs and devices, how to better treat sleep apnea in the elderly, and ways to better diagnose people with these conditions.3

Other types of sleep disorders include:

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