Central sleep apnea

Med Clin North Am. 1985 Nov;69(6):1205-19. doi: 10.1016/s0025-7125(16)30983-x.


Central sleep apnea is a disorder characterized by apneic episodes during sleep with no associated ventilatory effort. More commonly than not these apneas are seen in patients who also have obstructive and mixed events. Although patients with this disorder frequently complain of insomnia and depression, frank hypersomnolence is rarely encountered. As these complaints are common ones seen in numerous clinical situations, and since sleep studies are rarely conducted to investigate their etiology, the true incidence of central sleep apnea has not been determined. The etiology of central apnea remains unknown, although the association between these breathing events and a number of other disease processes has increased our understanding of the disorder. Central apneas during sleep commonly occur after hyperventilation with the associated hypocapnic alkalosis. This occurs at high altitude when hyperventilation is induced by hypoxia and at sea level when spontaneous nocturnal hyperventilation occurs. This suggests that PCO2 is the primary stimulus to ventilation during sleep and that loss of this drive, as occurs with hypocapnia, may produce dysrhythmic breathing. Patients with complete absence of ventilatory chemosensitivity such as occurs with Ondine's curse (central alveolar hypoventilation) or the obesity-hypoventilation syndrome may also have central apneas. For reasons that remain unexplained, central sleep apnea is commonly seen in patients with congestive heart failure, nasal obstruction, and certain neurologic disorders. However, in most patients with central sleep apnea no obvious cause or association can be found. The treatment of this disorder is not entirely satisfactory. If it is severe, mechanical ventilation during sleep can be provided by any one of a number of techniques. However, for the patient who simply complains of insomnia and is found to have a moderate number of central apneas, the treatment choices are limited. Acetazolamide has been shown to decrease central apneas during short-term use, but results have been variable with prolonged administration. Other ventilatory stimulants seem to have little efficacy. Interestingly, oxygen administration has been shown to reduce central apneas considerably in a number of studies, although the explanation for its success is unknown. Central sleep apnea therefore remains a relatively rare disorder whose etiology is not fully understood and whose treatment is not completely satisfactory.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetazolamide / therapeutic use
  • Airway Obstruction / complications
  • Animals
  • Carbon Dioxide / blood
  • Carbon Dioxide / physiology
  • Heart Failure / complications
  • Heart Failure / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Nervous System Diseases / complications
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Oxygen / therapeutic use
  • Oxygen Consumption
  • Respiration
  • Sleep Apnea Syndromes* / etiology
  • Sleep Apnea Syndromes* / physiopathology
  • Sleep Apnea Syndromes* / therapy


  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Acetazolamide
  • Oxygen