Sleep apnea historical perspective

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1] Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Saarah T. Alkhairy, M.D.


Sleep apnea was first described in literature in the 19th century. It was often misdiagnosed as either narcolepsy or skepticism. In 1981, Collin Sullivan invented the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) for the treatment of sleep apnea. Prior to its recognition as a unique disorder, sleep apnea was viewed as either a type of insomnia or an age-related phenomenon.


  • In 1890, Silas Weir Mitchell, a neurologist and American toxicologist, described sleep apnea as respiratory failure in sleep because of the "failure of the chest and diaphragmatic movements" [1]
  • During the second half of the 19th century, the clinical features of sleep apnea were thoroughly described:[1]

Development of Treatment Strategies

  • In 1981, Colin Sullivan and associates in Sydney improved the management of obstructive sleep apnea with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) [2]
  • By the late 1980s, CPAP was transformed from the bulky and noisy first models and became widely used, which lead to specialized clinics for diagnosis and treatment

Impact on Cultural History

  • April 18th is Sleep Apnea Awareness Day in recognition of Colin Sullivan (Australian physician, professor, and inventor)
  • Before sleep apnea was recognized as a separate sleep disorder, it was viewed as either a type of insomnia or an age-related phenomenon[3]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Lavie, [ill]etz (1984). "[ill]othing New Under the Moon". Archives of Internal Medicine. 144 (10): 2025. doi:10.1001/archinte.1984.04400010145023. ISSN 0003-9926.
  2. Sullivan, ColinE.; Berthon-Jones, Michael; Issa, FaiqG.; Eves, Lorraine (1981). "REVERSAL OF OBSTRUCTIVE SLEEP APNOEA BY CONTINUOUS POSITIVE AIRWAY PRESSURE APPLIED THROUGH THE NARES". The Lancet. 317 (8225): 862–865. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(81)92140-1. ISSN 0140-6736.
  3. Shaw R, McKenzie S, Taylor T, Olafiranye O, Boutin-Foster C, Ogedegbe G; et al. (2012). "Beliefs and attitudes toward obstructive sleep apnea evaluation and treatment among blacks". J Natl Med Assoc. 104 (11–12): 510–9. PMC 3740354. PMID 23560353.

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