Breathing pauses – causes, treatment


Breathing pauses occur as a symptom of so-called sleep apnea , usually at night during sleep. About 2-4 percent of the adult population are affected – especially overweight men who snore noticeably heavily. Breathing pauses lasting several seconds to minutes can lead to an acute lack of oxygen supply to the organism and, if left untreated, to a variety of chronic complaints in those affected. Special breathing masks can help.

What are breathing pauses?

Breathing pauses are brief interruptions in the involuntary breathing process. They usually occur as part of the sleep apnea syndrome (a-pnea – Greek: without breath).

The nocturnal breathing pauses usually last a few seconds, but in extreme cases up to 2 minutes. By definition, sleep apnea syndrome occurs when there are at least 5 pauses in breathing lasting 10 seconds or more per hour.

The cause of the breathing pauses can be a tissue-related obstruction of the trachea or a faulty regulation of the diaphragm muscles as a result of neurological disorders. Involuntary pauses in breathing during the day are very rare. They may refer to asthmatic diseases or occur in mental disorders.


People who suffer from breathing pauses often have physiological peculiarities in the area of ​​the pharynx and nasal cavity. It mainly affects men who generally snore heavily , for example due to a curved nasal septum or voluminous palate tissue.

About 80 percent of apnea sufferers are overweight . High weight promotes an increased accumulation of fatty tissue in the back of the throat and palate. The soft, heavy tissue can then sink slightly during sleep, especially when lying on your back, and temporarily block the air supply.

In the event of a dangerous drop in the oxygen content in the blood, the stress hormones that are released cause the person concerned to wake up for a short time, allowing the person concerned to take an abrupt breath. Breathing pauses occur more frequently after drinking alcohol, since alcohol also relaxes the palate tissue. Other but rare causes are neurological disorders, which are associated with a regulatory disorder of the respiratory muscles in the chest and abdomen.

diseases with this symptom

Diagnosis & History

Since those affected usually cannot remember the nocturnal breathing pauses, it is often partners or relatives who first notice the disorder. Apnea sufferers often have pronounced snoring and several unusually long breathing pauses during sleep, which are ended by abrupt start or noisy breathing.

Those affected suffer from severe daytime tiredness despite supposedly sufficient sleep duration , since waking up several times during the night prevents restful sleep. Based on the partner’s descriptions and the patient’s typical symptoms of tiredness, a medical diagnosis can be made quickly.

It makes sense to start with a broad clarification by an ENT , neurologist and oral surgeon. It is also advisable to visit a sleep laboratory to assess the extent and severity of the breathing pauses . Various parameters such as heart rate, blood oxygen content, brain waves, etc. are precisely analyzed here while the patient is sleeping.

If left untreated, the breathing pauses lead to a chronic sleep deficit over a long period of time. This in turn promotes a general reduction in performance and drive. Concentration , memory and possibly also libido disorders occur . The repeated physical alarm states can lead to high blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes.


Breathing pauses can usually be observed at night, especially in men who snore heavily or are overweight. The pauses in breathing can last several seconds, sometimes minutes. This is very dangerous because the organism is no longer sufficiently supplied with oxygen. Without treatment, breathing pauses can become life-threatening.

However, if those affected wear special breathing masks, remedial action can be taken quickly. Breathing pauses occur at night and last a few seconds. In particularly bad cases, the breath can stop for up to two minutes. Breathing pauses are rather rare during the day. These patients should visit a sleep laboratory and have the cause of the breathing pauses determined.

Those affected often have physiological peculiarities, for example the pharynx and nasal cavity can be to blame for the breathing stops, many patients have a curved nasal septum. About 80% of the patients are overweight , which only encourages the breathing stops. In the supine position, the tissue can sink slightly and block the air supply.

If the oxygen content of the blood falls dangerously low, the body releases stress hormones , which cause the sleeper to wake up briefly and gasp for air. This phenomenon is observed particularly frequently after drinking alcohol , which also relaxes the palate tissue. Very rarely, neurological disorders are also considered, they can also cause breathing pauses.

When should you go to the doctor?

Breathing pauses at night can be dangerous, which is why it is important to see a doctor as early as possible. When the tongue falls back into the throat during sleep, the airways become blocked. This can lead to breathing pauses lasting seconds, sometimes even minutes. The sooner sleep apnea is treated, the better, because it can increase the risk of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes .

The disease is often treated with a special breathing mask and hyperbaric therapy. CPAP therapy creates a standing air column in the throat, which keeps the upper airways open. Wearing the mask is uncomfortable for many patients, but because there is no daytime tiredness as a result of lack of sleep , it is just as readily accepted as dry nose and throat. These side effects are far less uncomfortable than the breathing pauses.

The CPAP mask has a 95-98% success rate. An anti-snoring splint, which also has good success rates, is an alternative therapy. Smokers should stop smoking immediately. Since the patients hardly notice their breathing pauses, the partners are primarily asked.

Sleep apnea mostly affects overweight people, but children can also get the condition. Those affected can find the right therapists among ENT doctors and in sleep medicine clinics. There are special sleep laboratories here, where the sleep rhythm and sleep progress of the subjects are observed.

Treatment & Therapy

Depending on the underlying cause of the breathing pauses and the findings of the sleep laboratory analysis, various individually tailored treatment options are available.

Most commonly, patients are advised to wear a respirator. With CPAP therapy (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure), the sleeping person is ventilated at night with slight overpressure, which prevents tracheal occlusions. The pressure and composition of the respiratory air supplied, eg additional enrichment with water to prevent the mucous membranes from drying out, can be individually varied.

If the breathing pauses are caused by enlarged tonsils and pharyngeal tonsils or nasal polyps , surgical removal may be indicated. Surgical interventions on tongue and palate tissue can also lead to a widening of the pharynx and thus an improved air supply. In the case of jaw misalignments, jaw surgery interventions with (bite) splints, dental braces or operations alleviate the breathing difficulties.

In milder cases, simple measures that prevent lying on your back during sleep can be sufficient. These can be devices worn at night, which emit alarm signals when sleeping in an unfavorable position. A self-executable countermeasure can z. This could also include, for example, sewing objects (e.g. tennis balls) into the back of pajamas that are bothersome but do not pose a risk of injury.

Outlook & Forecast

The consequences of nocturnal breathing pauses are more far-reaching than just the resulting tiredness and difficulty concentrating. Microsleep at the wheel due to exhaustion can lead to life-threatening accidents.

The reduced quality of sleep has a negative effect on the regeneration of the entire organism and is a heavy burden on the body in the long run. If left untreated, breathing pauses can therefore be a trigger for many secondary diseases. The pauses in breathing cut off the oxygen supply to the brain. To compensate for this lack of oxygen, the heart rate increases, which can result in cardiac arrhythmias and high blood pressure. Those affected also have an increased risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.

In general, patients with untreated apnea have a life expectancy reduced by 10 years compared to healthy people. Timely treatment is therefore crucial for a good prognosis and can greatly reduce the risks.

Sleep quality can be significantly improved with CPAP ventilation therapy, which has a success rate of 98%. The phase of getting used to the ventilation mask can be difficult, but in most cases there is a rapid improvement afterwards. The patients are more efficient and a blood pressure reduction can also be achieved through ventilation.


The usual treatment measures against breathing pauses – such as wearing special breathing apparatus – are also based on the principle of prevention. Those affected can also become active themselves in order to positively influence the course of the respiratory disorder.

In general, reducing excessive weight is recommended. Avoiding alcohol and cigarettes also has a beneficial effect on healthy sleep and reduces severe sagging of the palate tissue. These stimulants should be avoided, especially late in the evening, to prevent nocturnal breathing pauses.

You can do that yourself

Breathing pauses at night, known as sleep apnea, are dangerous because they double the risk of a stroke . Basically, the ENT doctor is the right contact for the treatment of breathing pauses. A sleep mask is usually prescribed, but patients can also take preventative measures.

If you eliminate the causes of sleep apnea, you may soon be able to look forward to continuous sleep phases . Typical risk factors for breathing pauses are stress, obesity and smoking. Quitting smoking increases the likelihood of restful sleep and increases life expectancy. Reducing excess weight often leads to success and also prevents cardiovascular diseases. If a slight misalignment of the jaw is the cause of snoring, a splint can help. This is only worn at night. Incorrectly dosed sleeping pills and sedatives can lead to symptoms of paralysis in the throat musclesand cause breathing pauses. The fewer sleeping pills you take, the better for your health. Alcohol also has a slight paralyzing effect. Those who do without it in the evening sleep more peacefully and deeply.

Sometimes a new pillow helps, because a down pillow that the patient with sleep apnea sinks deeply into is not helpful. In the sleep laboratory, the exact reasons for insomnia can be found out. Those affected and their relatives receive valuable tips and moral support in a self-help group. This helps them to cope with the illness.

Lisa Newlon
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.