Sleep apnoea is a disorder that causes frequent interruptions in a person’s breathing as they sleep. Read on for our guide to obstructive sleep apnoea and central sleep apnoea, the two main types of this condition and their effects on the body. We’ll mainly be focusing on obstructive sleep apnoea, the most common form of the condition.
What is obstructive sleep apnoea?
Obstructive sleep apnoea, also known as OSA, occurs when the muscles at the back of the throat relax and collapse during sleep. This causes a blockage of the airway which creates pauses in normal breathing. These pauses can occur several times in one night and often last for a few seconds. Sufferers often automatically wake with a snort or snore in order to breathe again.
What is central sleep apnoea?
Central sleep apnea occurs when your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing. Unlike OSA, the airway is not blocked, but the brain fails to signal the muscles to breathe, due to instability in the respiratory control centre.
Causes of obstructive sleep apnoea
Who is more susceptible?
Some people have a family history of OSA which gives them an increased risk of inheriting the condition. Although it can affect children, sleep apnoea is more often seen in people over the age of 40. What’s more, this sleeping disorder is more common in men than women. This could possibly be due to the difference in the way fat is distributed in male and female bodies. Those with large tonsils, adenoids or tongue, narrow airways or a small lower jaw are more susceptible to obstructive sleep apnoea. Additionally, people with large necks have an increased chance of OSA, such as men with a collar size larger than 43cm (17 inches).
Can your lifestyle cause OSA?
People who are overweight often have an increased bulk of soft tissue in the neck. This can place a strain on the throat muscles which can lead to sleep apnoea. Breathing difficulties caused by excess fat around the stomach can also contribute to OSA symptoms. Smoking and drinking alcohol before you sleep can also mean you’re more likely to develop sleep apnoea.
What other factors can contribute to sleep apnoea?
Menopausal women may experience hormone level as they go through the menopause. These changed may cause muscles in the throat to relax more than usual. Taking sleeping tablets, tranquilisers and other sedative medicines may also have a relaxing effect on the throat leading to OSA. People suffering from nasal congestion caused by nasal polyps or a deviated septum may also be more likely to develop sleep apnoea.
What are the effects of sleep apnoea?
After waking up numerous times during the night, people with sleep apnoea are left feeling tired and sleepy throughout the day. They may find themselves struggling to carry out their usual everyday activities at work or school. Poor concentration due to the lack of good quality sleep can also lead to an increased risk of driving accidents. As well as leaving sufferers tired, sleep apnoea can result in a variety health issues if left untreated. These include high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, heart failure, irregular heartbeats and heart attacks.
Symptoms of sleep apnoea
Noisy breathing and loud snoring can often indicate that you may have OSA. But the most obvious sign to look out for is recurring pauses in breathing or breathing that is frequently disrupted by snorting or gasping. For breathing to return to normal, your brain will automatically wake you up due to the lack of oxygen. Night sweats and getting up to urinate are also other signs that you could have obstructive sleep apnoea.
Are there any daytime symptoms?
Although episodes of sleep apnoea only happen when you’re asleep, it can have a significant effect on your life. Constantly waking up to breathe or to urinate can leave you feeling extremely tired due to lack of sleep. The resulting tiredness often means you find it had to concentrate, feel irritable, depressed and at risk of falling asleep during the day. This can be especially dangerous if you are driving.
How can tell if I have OSA?
As the most obvious signs usually appear whilst you’re sleeping, it’s likely that you won’t be aware that your breathing is being interrupted. This is why the condition often goes undiagnosed. Partners, family members or friends are often the first to notice if there are any pauses in your breathing or you’re making gasping noises as you sleep.
How to treat sleep apnoea
If you think you may be suffering from sleep apnoea, make an appointment with your GP to discuss your symptoms. They will be able to recommend suitable treatments. These could range from lifestyle changes, using a device to help keep your airway clear or, in rare cases, surgery.
How can lifestyle changes help to improve symptoms?
A few simple changes can make a huge difference to less serious cases of OSA. These include giving up smoking, cutting down on alcohol and not using sedatives. Overweight people might also notice an improvement in their OSA symptoms if they lose excess weight. Simply changing sleeping positions can also help people who only have sleep apnoea when they lie on their backs. Try lying on your side for a better night’s sleep.
Which breathing devices are available?
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices or a mandibular advancement device (MAD) are two of the most effective options. CPAP devices are small pumps that release a non-stop supply of compressed air that stops the throat closing. Worn as a mask that covers the nose or mouth, CPAP helps relieve symptoms like tiredness and snoring. For those with milder cases of sleep apnoea, a MAD is designed to fit over the teeth and increase the space at the back of the throat. This helps reduce the narrowing of the throat by holding the jaw and tongue forward.
When is surgery recommended?
As a last resort, doctors may suggest surgery to treat severe obstructive sleep apnoea caused by underlying issues that can’t be improved by lifestyle changes or devices. Some of these include enlarged tonsils or adenoids, as well as severe obesity.
Shop our sleep and relaxation range