Sleep Apnoea: What is it and How Should You Treat It?

Sleep, by definition, is a “condition of body and mind in which the nervous system is inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended.” Contrastingly, apnoea means “the cessation of breathing”. The umbrella term of ‘sleep apnoea’ refers to people who unintentionally stop breathing in their sleep. It can be a serious condition, but the good news is that it can be treated.

To help you, we’ve put together an informative guide explaining what causes sleep apnoea, the common symptoms and the types of treatments available to help you get a better night’s sleep.

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA)?

The term ‘obstructive’ is often used to proceed the term ‘sleep apnoea’ as it distinguishes the common form of the condition from other rarer forms of sleep apnoea. These rarer forms called ‘Central Sleep Apnoea’ (CSA) are often a result of the brain not sending signals to the muscles that aid breathing while sleeping. Complex Sleep Apnea Syndrome occurs when someone has both OSA and CSA.

What causes sleep apnoea?

Sleep apnoea is caused by the airway becoming repeatedly blocked, limiting the amount of oxygen that can reach the lungs. Attempting to breathe may cause loud snoring and choking noises. As the brain and body becomes more and more oxygen deprived, there will be a natural trigger of falling back into a lighter sleep, or even waking up to try and open the airways again.

Less serious cases of sleep apnoea may only result in a few episodes per night, but in more serious cases, it can happen every couple of minutes; resulting in a very unsettled sleep.

How do you know if you have sleep apnoea?

Obstructive Sleep Apnoea or ‘OSA’ is a condition that affects around 4% of middle-aged men and 2% of middle-aged women. It’s most common between the ages of 30-60 but it can affect people of all ages, including children.

There is some uncertainty as to the official number of adults in the UK with the condition, with up to 85% undiagnosed, according to the British Lung Foundation. This is because many who have sleep apnoea will have no memory of the interrupted sleep – it usually takes a partner, friend or family member to notice the symptoms.

If you do think that you have sleep apnoea, it’s important to consult your GP. They will act accordingly and, on some occasions, refer you to an overnight clinic where they’ll monitor your sleeping habits.

What are the common sleep apnoea symptoms?

These repeated sleep interruptions can make you extremely fatigued. The main things to look out for are loud snoring, noisy and delayed breathing, and continuous short periods where breathing is interrupted by snorting or gasping. Other symptoms include:

  • Poor memory and concentration
  • Not feeling refreshed after waking up
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Depression and overall negative thoughts
  • Feeling fatigued and lethargic throughout the day
  • Headaches after waking up

Is sleep apnoea dangerous?

Although it’s not directly related, Obstructive Sleep Apnoea can increase the risk of triggering potentially more serious conditions such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and accidents caused by sleep deprivation.

Other complications include:

  • Daytime fatigue
  • Complications with medications and surgery
  • Liver problems
  • Sleep-deprived partners

Is sleep apnoea hereditary?

Researchers have found that Obstructive Sleep Apnoea is 40% attributable to genetic factors, suggesting that having a close family member with the disorder can increase a person’s likelihood of developing OSA. The remaining 60% of underlying causes are environmental or lifestyle-related, such as obesity, medications and even high altitudes.

Can you cure sleep apnoea?

Sleep apnoea is a long-term condition, and many sufferers will require lifelong treatment. However, there are various sleep apnoea treatments that may alleviate some of the symptoms.

Lifestyle

The first thing many people with sleep apnoea will be advised to do is to make healthy lifestyle changes such as weight loss, stopping smoking or avoiding sedative medications and sleeping pills. Reducing alcohol and sleeping on your side instead of your back has also been said to improve the symptoms of the condition.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP):

CPAP is often thought to be the most effective treatment for sleep apnoea. It involves using a sleep apnoea machine that supplies air pressure through a mask that is placed over your nose while you sleep. The mask covers most of the face and offers a continuous supply of air pressure to prevent the throat from closing.

It can be uncomfortable, but you will soon become accustomed to the machine and symptoms will improve as a result. Not only can the machine help to reduce snoring, but it can also help sufferers to feel less tired and it can reduce the risk of diseases linked to the condition such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

Possible side effects of CPAP treatment include headaches and ear pain, nasal congestion and nose irritation, difficulty breathing through your nose, mask discomfort and possible flatulence. However, the pros of using the device far outweigh the cons.

If your device is causing you discomfort, speak to your GP and they will be able to alter the position to make it more comfortable. If you continue to snore, you should visit your GP.

Surgery

Like with most ailments and conditions, surgery is considered as a last resort for sleep apnoea. This is because the evidence shows that it is not as effective as CPAP in controlling the symptoms, and surgery also carries the risk of more serious complications. Having said this, surgery can work for some people when all other options have failed. Some of the operations that may help to alleviate the condition are:

  • Jaw repositioning: This surgery is perhaps the closest to a quick fix for sleep apnoea available. The procedure involves moving the jaw forward from the remainder of the bones in your face. This then leaves a greater distance behind the tongue and soft palate, meaning that obstruction is far less likely.
  • Tracheostomy: If all other treatments fail and your sleep apnoea is severe, you may be required to have this form of surgery. The operation involves making an opening in the neck and inserting a plastic tube through which you breathe. The opening will be covered during the day but at night, it’s uncovered to supply air to the lungs.
  • Weight loss: Weight loss surgery is becoming increasingly more common in both Europe and America, most likely due to the average body mass index increasing at an alarming rate. Obesity will make sleep apnoea significantly worse, which is why some resort to having weight loss surgery.

It’s clear that many people are not aware that they have sleep apnoea, so  it’s important to raise the issue if you notice someone with symptoms, or visit a GP if you think you may be suffering.

We hope our guide to sleep apnoea has answered some of your questions around the symptoms, causes and treatments available. For more expert advice about improving your sleep, head over to our Comfort Corner.

At HSL, your comfort and wellbeing are our top priority, which is why our chairs, sofas and beds have been specially designed and approved by experts such as Occupational Therapist, Julie Jennings Dip COT HCPC, to support your body effectively. Visit one of our stores or arrange a free home visit to find out how we can help you.

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