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Improving Sleep Disorders With Respiratory Therapy

According to, between 50 million and 70 million people (between 9% and 15% of adults) have sleep disorders in the U.S. While many individuals struggle with their sleep health, respiratory therapy can effectively improve sleep disorders related to breathing difficulties. This demand means promising outcomes for those in the respiratory therapy field. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for respiratory therapists between 2021 and 2031 is 14% (much faster than average).

The Northern Kentucky University (NKU) online Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Care (BSRC) program equips students with the depth of knowledge necessary to provide high-quality care to these patients, improve their quality of life and anticipate trends in the field.

What Are Examples of Breathing-Related Sleep Disorders?

Breathing-related sleep disorders typically cause interrupted breathing during sleep, leading to snoring, fatigue and other symptoms that can negatively affect a person’s daily life. There are several types and subtypes, but the following are the most common:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea: Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep disorder characterized by repeated episodes of partial or complete obstruction of the upper airway during sleep, leading to interruptions in breathing and a drop in oxygen levels. As a result, people experiencing OSA may wake briefly but repeatedly throughout the night and experience excessive daytime sleepiness. Snoring, choking or gasping during sleep are common.

    OSA results from airway collapse or obstruction and can arise from various causes, such as obesity, enlarged tonsils and narrow airways. In adults, the blockage frequently occurs at the soft palate or tongue. Still, the disorder can present at any age but is more common in men, older adults and individuals with a family history of OSA.

  • Central sleep apnea: Like OSA, central sleep apnea (CSA) is a sleep disorder that causes interruptions in breathing during sleep. However, instead of a physical obstruction or collapse of the airway, the interrupted breathing patterns in CSA occur due to a failure to activate the breathing muscles. According to, this can happen when the brain does not properly signal to the respiratory muscles or the respiratory muscles do not activate after receiving the signal. Certain medications, like narcotics, may suppress breathing. In addition, underlying medical conditions — such as stroke, heart failure and neurological disorders — can contribute to the development of CSA.

    Daytime sleepiness, poor memory and difficulty concentrating may occur. CSA is less common than OSA, impacting approximately 1% of people over 40. Males and older adults are most often affected.

  • Obesity hypoventilation syndrome: Obesity hypoventilation syndrome (OHS) is a sleep disorder that causes breathing difficulties during sleep, resulting in low oxygen levels in the blood and high carbon dioxide levels. Hypoventilation may worsen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, as noted by Medscape.

    Symptoms can include daytime sleepiness, fatigue, shortness of breath and headaches. Individuals at-risk for OHS have a body mass index greater than 30 and may have underlying medical conditions, such as OSA, heart failure or lung disease.

Treatment for Breathing-Related Sleep Disorders

While treatment varies for breathing-related sleep disorders, healthcare providers must first identify and address any underlying causes. A sleep study can help pinpoint the problem. If left untreated, these sleep disorders can contribute to serious health complications, like high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes. According to the European Respiratory Journal, disrupted breathing can generate “hypoxemia, hypercapnia, swings in intrathoracic pressure and post-apneic arousals associated with sympathetic surges.”

Otherwise, treatment focuses on improving sleep hygiene and oxygenation by modifying behavior. Changes may include losing weight through diet and exercise, avoiding the supine position during sleep and using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine to deliver constant airflow to the lungs. Occasionally, surgery is necessary to address physical obstructions.

Breathing-related sleep disorders can drastically impact people’s well-being, making it difficult to feel rested and productive. However, individuals experiencing sleep disorder symptoms have options. By working with an experienced healthcare team, including a respiratory therapist, an individualized treatment plan can address their specific underlying medical conditions and optimize their health.

Graduates of NKU’s online BSRC program possess the necessary skills in patient care, evidence-based practice, patient data analysis and other aptitudes in the respiratory health space. Students take featured research-based capstone courses that help them tailor their skills to particular focus areas and worksites. With the knowledge gained from this program, graduates can also pursue graduate education in the respiratory care field.

Learn more about NKU’s Bachelor of Science in Respiratory Care online program.

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