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What is Cheyne-Stokes Respiration?

M.C. Huguelet
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Cheyne-Stokes respiration is a variety of central sleep apnea that is characterized by the cyclical weakening and strengthening of the breath. Different from the more common obstructive sleep apnea – in which breathing is inhibited by a physical obstruction of the airway – central sleep apnea occurs when the brain fails to send messages to the respiratory muscles instructing them to breathe. Altogether, only about five percent of all sleep apnea patients suffer from a central sleep apnea.

Generally, Cheyne-Stokes respiration results from damage to the respiratory system. It most often affects those who have suffered stroke or congestive heart failure, but can also occur following injury to the brain, and can even be triggered by exposure to high altitudes. Episodes of Cheyne-Stokes consist of repeating cycles of abnormal respiration, each lasting between approximately 45 seconds and three minutes. During each cycle, the patient's breathing grows strong and then subsequently weakens. At times, this weakening – also known as hypopnea – progresses to a temporary but complete cessation of respiration, or apnea.

As with all forms of sleep apnea, Cheyne-Stokes respiration can negatively affect the quality of a patient's sleep. Of course, the degradation of one's ability to rest at night can carry over to the realm of waking life. As such, sufferers of Cheyne-Stokes respiration might experience daytime fatigue, disorientation, and moodiness. In some cases, however, sufferers are totally unaware of their condition, and can potentially remain so unless a second party happens to witness a Cheyne-Stokes episode.

Perhaps more grave is the potential of Cheyne-Stokes respiration to aggravate heart difficulties that may have initiated the disorder in the first place. When normal respiratory function is interrupted, oxygen pressure in the blood drops – a phenomenon known as hypoxemia. In the absence of sufficient oxygen pressure, the cardiac system's ability to pump blood to the heart is impaired. This condition, called diastolic dysfunction, can lead to arrhythmia, or abnormal heartbeat, which can in turn bring on further heart disease and stroke.

Those who suspect they may suffer from Cheyne-Stokes respiration should consult a physician for diagnosis. As with any type of sleep apnea, the process of diagnosing Cheyne-Stokes typically requires the patient to sleep under observation. During this period, doctors might apply a battery of tests that monitor brain, cardiac, and respiratory systems for signs of abnormality.

Once Cheyne-Stokes is diagnosed, physicians may seek to treat the underlying condition causing the disorder. Addressing a patient's heart difficulty, for instance, may cause Cheyne-Stokes to resolve. In other cases treatment might include the use of devices to regulate breathing patterns and oxygen levels, and maintain open airways.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
M.C. Huguelet
By M.C. Huguelet
Cate Huguelet, a Chicago-based freelance writer with a passion for storytelling, crafts engaging content for a wide range of publications, including The Health Board. With degrees in Writing and English, she brings a unique perspective and a commitment to clean, precise copy that resonates with readers. Her ability to understand and connect with audiences makes her a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By literally45 — On Oct 26, 2014

@discographer-- Please don't hesitate, see your doctor right away. If you do have this respiration problem, you wouldn't want to let it go undiagnosed. The article already described that it can cause serious complications if it isn't dealt with.

There is nothing to fear. Like mentioned, diagnosis is fairly simple. You'll just have to stay at the hospital one night so that they can observe your respiration when you sleep. It's not a big deal at all. And you certainly should get tests done for your heart if your doctor wants them. Because if you can treat the underlying condition, the respiration issue may disappear altogether. I think that's a much better option than waking up constantly during the night, out of breath.

By discographer — On Oct 26, 2014

Does anyone here have Cheyne-Stokes respiration? I suspect that I may have it but I haven't been tested for it yet. I'm curious, if it turns out that I have this, will I be automatically required to get tests to check the health of my heart? I'm a little nervous when it comes to diagnostic testing and medical procedures. That's why I've hesitated to see the doctor about this.

By SarahGen — On Oct 25, 2014

I didn't even realize that this type of sleep apnea existed. When referring to sleep apnea, most actually mean obstructive apnea. But I guess that's understandable since Cheyne-Stokes respiration is not that common. All kinds of apnea are awful though. My dad had sleep apnea for years before he passed away. He spent many sleepless nights because of it and had to be put on oxygen from time to time.

I am glad that medicine is developed enough to diagnose these issues though. Diagnosing sleep apnea requires being monitored for at least a night in the hospital and they have machines keeping track of the person's respiration.

M.C. Huguelet
M.C. Huguelet
Cate Huguelet, a Chicago-based freelance writer with a passion for storytelling, crafts engaging content for a wide...
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