Periodic breathing refers to an abnormal respiratory rhythm and occurs in cases of central sleep apnea syndrome and Cheyne-Stokes respiration. An example of periodic breathing is the sudden experience of apnea, or inability to breathe. Shortness of breath might also occur after a cluster of normal breaths. This condition affects people of all ages.
The respiratory system brings oxygen into the lungs and releases carbon dioxide. As soon as inhalation occurs, fresh oxygen flows directly to millions of air sacs in the lungs called alveoli. Capillaries cover each alveoli and act as gateways for oxygen to enter the bloodstream. Red blood cells pass through the capillaries to pick up oxygen and transport it to every cell in the body. After circulating, red blood cells drop off carbon dioxide wastes in the lungs, which is then released upon exhalation.
A mechanism within a part of the brain known as the medulla oblongata controls the rate of inhalation and exhalation. When a person takes an excessive number of deep breaths at a rapid rate, he or she experience hyperpnea. Slow intake of air and shortness of breath while sleeping is known as hypopnea. Hyperpnea commonly occurs when a person lacks an adequate supply of oxygen, such as during physical exertion. In hypopnea, only a small amount of air is able to pass through the mouth and nasal passageways.
Central sleep apnea syndrome is dangerous because it causes the flow of oxygen to stop momentarily. People with this condition can stop breathing multiple times during a sleep period. Most complain about the inability to reach REM sleep and wake frequently during the night. Periodic breathing that occurs at night can be caused by cardiovascular disease, but healthy individuals can experience central sleep apnea syndrome while sleeping at high altitudes.
People with central sleep apnea syndrome benefit from breathing therapy. A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine continuously streams oxygen through the airway. Physicians adjust the pressure of the oxygen machine according to sleep study results.
Periodic breathing that gradually increases and decreases with occasional apnea is referred to as Cheyne-Stokes respiration. Congestive heart failure is the leading cause of Cheyne-Stokes respiration. Physicians can stabilize those without heart defects by administering carbon dioxide. A combination of congestive heart failure and Cheyne-Stokes respiration dramatically increases a patient's chances of dying.