What Is Periodic Breathing?

Jackie Myers

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.

Red blood cells pass through capillaries to pick up oxygen and transport it to every cell in the body.
Red blood cells pass through capillaries to pick up oxygen and transport it to every cell in the body.

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.

Individuals with central sleep apnea syndrome can stop breathing multiple times during a sleep period.
Individuals with central sleep apnea syndrome can stop breathing multiple times during a sleep period.

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.

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Individuals who are morbidly obese may experience hyperpnea, or taking an excessive number of deep breaths quickly.
Individuals who are morbidly obese may experience hyperpnea, or taking an excessive number of deep breaths quickly.

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.

A man with using a BiPAP breathing mask to manage sleep apnea, a common cause of periodic breathing.
A man with using a BiPAP breathing mask to manage sleep apnea, a common cause of periodic breathing.

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.

Intense drowsiness and inability to stay awake during the day may indicate breathing issues at night.
Intense drowsiness and inability to stay awake during the day may indicate breathing issues at night.

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.

Shortness of breath might occur after a cluster of normal breaths.
Shortness of breath might occur after a cluster of normal breaths.

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Discussion Comments

anon1002482

I also would like to know about percentage of night in periodic breathing.

anon997244

A CPAP does not stream oxygen through the airways. It uses room air to create an air splint in the throat to keep it open.

anon312782

But what should be the Percent of Night in Periodic Breathing (PB)on (CPAP) machine? Mine is about 0.2 percent.

KCBunny

I just found this article concerning sleep apnea and Cheyne-Stokes Respiration. I have suffered from sleep apnea for several years and use a CPAP machine.

Recently, I've started experiencing rather terrifying episodes, and last night was the worst. I often wake up from a sound sleep because I am breathing, nor am I able to make myself breathe. I am also paralyzed at this time. Try as I might, I cannot will myself to move or breathe.

Last night, it happened twice in rapid succession and the second time, I felt as if I was suffocating. I had been deprived of oxygen for a period long enough that I felt as though I had no reserve oxygen left in my lungs. I thought I was going to die before the paralysis resolved and I started literally gasping for air as if I had just pushed myself up from a deep body of water and had finally reached the surface. It was probably the most frightening night of my life.

I have an appointment coming up with my sleep specialist in two weeks, but am scared that one night, I simply won't wake up in time. This has happened a total of six times now and the severity seems to be increasing with each episode. Could this kill me?

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