Expiratory Apneas With or Without Catathrenia Presenting As Central Apneas

Here’s an interesting poster that I presented at last week’s SLEEP meeting in Boston: Expiratory Apneas With or Without Catathrenia Presenting As Central Apneas. To explain the terminology, catathrenia is a rare condition where one groans or moans while sleeping. Central sleep apneas occur then your brain doesn’t send signals to your lungs to breathe. It’s more commonly seen in patients with heart failure or neurologic conditions. Apneas are commonly thought to occur during inhalation, with collapse of your throat tissues while you inhale.

However, in some patients, the obstruction happens during mid nasal exhalation. The history is very unique: The person begins a normal nasal exhale, but during mid-exhalation, you hear a sudden occlusion or closure, with breath holding for a few seconds to well over 15 seconds. This breath holding is terminated by an arousal or complete oral exhale and then a few deep breaths, with the cycle happening all over again. In some patients, there will be moaning or groaning during the breath holding portion.

I was able to find a patient that could replicate this finding while awake on his back (see poster). What you see is that during mid-nasal exhalation, the redundant uvula flaps back up into the nasopharnx, blocking nasal exhalation completely. During this event, you can either hold your breath, like straining lightly during a bowel movement, or vocalize continuously, leading to moans. Coincidentally, my wife also had this exact phenomenon during the last trimester of her last pregnancy.

If you look at the sleep study tracings during these episodes, it may seem like a central apnea, since there’s no nasal air flow and there are no chest or abdominal movements. But if you look closer, sounds are being made, and there’s air coming out of the mouth (due to moaning). These events classically occur during REM sleep, in the early morning hours, when muscles are most relaxed. In the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s International Classification of Sleep Disorders -2, catathrenia is classified as a parasomnia. However, it’s clear from this observation and a handful of other studies that suggest that catathrenia should be classified as a variation of obstructive sleep apnea. Guillminault published a paper a while back showing that all his catathrenia patients were cured with either CPAP or uvulopalatopharyngoplasty.

I’ve had a number of these patients (mostly young and thin) who were diagnosed with central sleep apnea. You can imagine the anxiety that’s created when they find out that they have central sleep apnea, with no plausible explanation.

Do you either moan in the night, or stop breathing suddenly during exhalation while sleeping?

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73 thoughts on “Expiratory Apneas With or Without Catathrenia Presenting As Central Apneas

  1. Mr. Hughes,

    Thanks for sharing your story. The link to the poster is working now. Thanks for pointing it out. As expected, sleep physicians are not aware of this condition. You’re welcome to take a copy of the poster to your physician. I’m working on a manuscript on this condition. Hope to submit for publication soon.

  2. I do this while awake and have been doing so for as long as I can remember. I have no idea if I do it while asleep, but I don’t think so since no one has ever mentioned it. I never notice I’m doing it but people get weirded out and point it out to me. I’ve had it described as the moaning video games characters do when dying. 99% of the time it happens when I’m lying down at home at night. Even after I’m made aware of it, it takes a lot of focus to normalise my breathing. I’m currently feeling a bit freaked out cause googling it didn’t give me much of an answer.

  3. Thank you for this blog. I would love to hear your insight in relation to my daughter. Between ages 4 and 8 she had a handful of fainting episodes immediately followed by what looked like a brief petite mal seizure. After one of the episodes, she had a period of coughing which started and stopped abruptly. This made me wonder if the brainstem was somehow involved. However, no lesions or abnormalities were noted on her CAT scan. After a cardiac and neurological work-up, the presumptive diagnosis is a vaso-vagal reaction. She is now 12, thin/normal weight and otherwise healthy. She has not had any fainting episodes since 3rd grade. For as long as I can remember, she has not been a “morning person”. Now that she is older, she is sharing with us that she does not feel rested in the morning (and is often tired throughout the day). I have observed (for the last 3-4 years) that she makes odd snoring noises – typically around 3:00am. Recently, I have gone into her room to learn more. She frequently awakens immediately and asks why I am in her room. However, when she does not awaken, I have noted that she is on her stomach, without a pillow, making prolonged expiratory moaning sounds. I could not discern any periods of apnea or a cessation of breathing. I am curious about a potential link between her previous episodes and her current sleep patterns. Is there a good resource where I can look to find research related to catathrenia and similar disorders?

  4. This sounds like me exactly. I’m young and thin and have been having this unique problem for as long as I remember. It only happens to me when I’m trying to fall asleep and rarely while I’m sleeping but it will wake me up. It defers me from sleeping and has become so annoying. My boyfriend calls it “dry heaving”, I’ll have a sudden abdominal jerk and quick forced exhale usually with a groan. Happens multiple times a night before I fall asleep. I’ve noticed if I take controlled deep breaths it will cease but that’s harder to do as you’re falling asleep. I am exclusively a stomach sleeper.

    I personally have found an association to if my hands are hot, it will occur more often. Sometimes if I put lotion on my hands and sleep palms up with the circulating air it will stop the breathing problems. But only sometimes. I told my PCP this and I think he thought I was crazy. The forced exhale will also occur sometimes if my hands are in hot water (like a bathtub).

    I’d like to think it’s a unique attribute and not a serious medical issue, but some answers or treatment would be awesome.

  5. Hello

    I’ve just been told i do this. In fact I noticed myself waking and exhaling thu my mouth. It felt rushed and false.

  6. I have had this problem for a while and its very problematic especially while sleeping. While sleeping i sometimes wake up out of my sleep after trying to exhale thru my nose but notice that im exhaling with a rush of air thru my mouth. Im not sure but i think while this is happening, that im not breathing properly while sleeping. is there a remedy to fix this problem?

  7. Dr. Park, please forgive me if I’ve missed this elsewhere, but could you give a short description of the surgery that can correct this condition? Can it be done on an outpatient basis?

  8. Hello, I am a 38yr old male. Im 185 lbs and 6’2. I dont smoke or use tobacco, yet over the past couple of years I have started to have HBP which I am being treated for as well as the onset of snoring. The type of snoring that I am having is different from most types I have read about. My snoring actually wakes me up and its extremely loud. From what I can tell, it seems to be occurring as I exhale through my nose. It is not a groan though. I wake up often at night feeling like I can’t breathe. I have also started having the feeling during the day like I cant get a full breath. I am a second year medical student and have chalked it up to anxiety but as I have further investigated my situation, it seems like I may have some type of sleep apnea that could possibly be causing all of these sequelae. Does this sound like anything anyone has ever heard of before?

  9. Chris,

    Regardless of what’s going on with your throat, your first step is to get tested and treated for possible obstructive sleep apnea by a certified sleep doctor. Only if standard treatments don’t work do these unusual anatomic variations become relevant.

    Good luck…

  10. I am 33 weeks pregnant and this has been happening to me for about 6 weeks now and seems to be worsening. I only sleep on my side and have been trying to elevate my upper body to see if that helps (it doesn’t). In addition, I have also become a serious snorer – my husband has even recorded me to show me how bad it is… Two questions- do you think a c-pap machine might help? Or do you have another suggestion as I can’t have surgery while pregnant. Did anything work for your wife? And second, did the condition reverse for your wife once she gave birth? This is seriously interrupting my sleep and I’m not sure I can handle it much longer. Thank you for any insights that may help.

  11. I have come to the conclusion that I have this blockage on exhale and I can duplicate it while awake lying on my back, and focusing on completly relaxing my jaw/tongue etc. I have used a CPAP for a number of years now and it seems to have not had the miracle cure to my sleepiness as advertised and wondered why. I also use a chin strap, which also hasn’t helped.

  12. Ms. Hammitt,

    In general, if you snore that much, it’s probably a good idea to get tested for sleep apnea and undergo treatment (usually CPAP or dental appliance for pregnant women). Only if you have trouble with CPAP due to this particular palatal issue will it need to be addressed.

    My wife got an anti-snoring shot in the soft palate (called injection snoreplaty). It helped for a few months. There’s no medical literature on this at all, so you’ll have to see a sleep doctor or ENT that’s knowledgeable about this.

  13. I know this is pretty old but it is the best resource I have found on catathrenia and it is good to hear stories from people who suffer from it. My wife originally said I made crazy noises and would snore years ago so I had a take home sleep study and was diagnosed with complex apnea. I honestly think that I just have catathrenia and the study thought they were apnea events. I got a CPAP machine and then an ASV but my AHI numbers are always pretty bad no matter what settings I have tried on either machine. I really think it is because I have catathrenia and not apnea.

  14. I actually have a question, does anyone have a general idea of the settings to use on an ASV machine to properly treat catathrenia? Is it a minimum amount of pressure or high pressure? I can’t seem to find any info regarding this anywhere.

  15. This is what is happening to me when I am almost asleep. When I lay on my back and begin to drift off, there is an occlusion in the back of my throat that prevents me from exhaling through my nose. I can feel what I can only describe as a “flap” blocking my exhalation process. I can hear it as it drops in place. I am 40 years old and work extremely odd hours. I thought that had something to do with it and am sure my uncharacteristic sleep schedule is how it began. I am tired during the day and have a hard time sleeping at night. I have tried to find out what is going on but have been unable to find d any information until coming across this article. I do not want to use cpap but am worried my condition is only going to get worse. I am also able to instigate the process while awake. I am not sure what I should do. Any help in this area would be greatly appreciated.

  16. Yes I do. My sleep doc thinks I’m imagining it. I catch it even sometimes when I’m trying to fall asleep.

  17. This is exactly what happens to me! I too can replicate the expiratory apnea while awake. I can breathe out through my nose (while laying on my back) and something in the back of my throat will “flap shut” and I can no longer exhale nasally. I can inhale, but not exhale. I can do both orally no problem. My ENT and my sleep doctor both seemed as if I was describing a completely alien event. The ENT even scoped out my nasal passages and throat because he was intrigued but did not notice anything unusual. I did start CPAP therapy and that seems to have helped with snoring and apnea, but the expiratory apnea still occurs as a series of clicks, or pops, instead of a complete obstruction due to the positive pressure. Of course, going to the dentist (reclined in chair, mouth full of tools/water and really needing to breathe through my nose) is still an adventure. Thank you for posting this!!

  18. Dear Dr. Park,

    At night, only whilst lying flat on my back (not on either side) there is an abrupt shutting off of my ability to exhale through my nasal passage. I am unaware of any accompanying sound. This clears immediately if I turn over to my left or right, suggesting a possibly gravitational implication.

    There is no associated discomfort.

    My first thought was that something (possibly a post natal drip following a chronic cough a couple of weeks ago when I first became aware of this) was triggering the epiglottis to react in the normal way but then the epiglottis seemed to me to be not physically high enough to match the sensation (nasopharnx proximity) or indeed likely to flop about as I turned.

    Following my reading of your article, I looked at my uvula which seemed longer, thinner and more ‘dangly’ than I had imagined but healthy in every other respect. Perhaps age (71) could have a stretching/elongating effect which might account for the uvula’s ability to reach a position capable of creating the effect you describe when I lie on my back, and then fall aside as I turn over?

    I would be most grateful and of course very interested to read any comment you may feel inclined to make. Thank you for your time.

  19. These are my symptoms exactly except that I am neither young nor thin. In the early morning hours “if” I am sleeping on my back which I don’t ordinarily do. Occasionally, I can replicate the “sudden occlusion or closure” during the day while awake. It is nice to finally know what this is. :)

  20. I have this. When lying on my back (but elevated because I have a hospital bed), I can inhale through my nose, then something audibly “drops”, when I exhale, blocking my nose entirely, forcing the air out of my mouth, which comes out sounding like a “razz”, or a fart, with EVERY EXHALATION. It wakes me up with EVERY breath. I do have obstructive sleep apnea, but this is new. I have a bi-pap, and use 24-hr oxygen. So can this be fixed?

  21. Unfortunately, the only way to save this problem is through soft palate surgery. In some cases, the soft palate can be scarred using an agent for varicose veins. Only an in-office personal exam can confirm this.