Sleep apnoea is a condition where your breathing stops and starts while you’re asleep. The most common form of sleep apnoea is obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA).
What are the causes of sleep apnoea?
Sleep apnoea happens if the muscles in your throat relax and cause your airway to become too narrow while you sleep. This reduces the amount of air flowing into your airways.
If your throat closes completely, you’ll stop breathing until your brain kickstarts your breathing again. You’ll often grunt or move as your breathing restarts. If you have severe OSA, this can happen hundreds of times each night, disturbing your sleep and leaving you feeling tired during the day.
Sleep apnoea has been linked to:
- Being overweight
- Having a large neck or a small airway
- Nasal polyps
- Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption
- Having large tonsils or a large tongue
- Sleeping on your back
- Your age: middle-aged men and post-menopausal women are more susceptible to sleep apnoea
- Family members who also have the condition
What are the symptoms of sleep apnoea?
It can be hard to tell whether you have the symptoms of sleep apnoea, so you should ask someone to stay with you and check for symptoms while you’re asleep. They may notice that you:
- Stop and start your breathing
- Make choking or gasping noises as if you’re struggling to breathe
- Snore a lot
- Wake up frequently throughout the night
Some of the waking symptoms include:
- Feeling tired or exhausted
- Headache upon waking
- Finding it difficult to concentrate
- Mood swings
- Gastrointestinal conditions such as heartburn
If you experience any of these symptoms regularly, you should make an appointment to see your GP.
How is sleep apnoea diagnosed?
Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. Depending on how severe your sleep apnoea is, they may refer you to a specialist sleep clinic for tests.
What happens at a sleep apnoea clinic?
Sleep clinics assess, diagnose and treat people with a range of sleep conditions, including sleep apnoea. Your Consultant will carry out a physical exam, including your weight and height, blood pressure, neck and jaw size.
They may also ask you about your symptoms as well as any relevant family history, the state of your mental health, any prescription medication and how sleep apnoea is affecting your quality of life.
Your Consultant may also carry out a series of tests and studies to show how severe your sleep apnoea is. This could include:
- An overnight sleep study at home or at the clinic where you’ll wear equipment to monitor your breathing, heart rate and the level of oxygen in your blood
- A form-based test such as the Epworth Sleepiness Scale test
Is there a common sleep apnoea treatment?
If you’ve been diagnosed with mild sleep apnoea, there are some things you can do to relieve the symptoms:
- Stop smoking if you’re a regular smoker
- Don’t drink too much alcohol before you go to bed
- Avoid taking sleeping pills (unless your GP has prescribed them) as they can make your sleep apnoea worse
- Lose weight if you’re overweight
- Keep active
- Sleep on your side – you can buy a special pillow which stops you from rolling onto your back or front
Does a sleep apnoea machine work?
A CPAP machine is commonly used to treat sleep apnoea. The CPAP machine pumps air into a mask which you wear over your nose or mouth while you’re asleep. It can make breathing easier by stopping your airways from constricting. This in turn improves the quality of your sleep so you’ll feel less tired.
What happens if I don’t get sleep apnoea treatment?
Without treatment, sleep apnoea can lead to more serious conditions, such as:
- High blood pressure or a higher risk of stroke
- Depression or severe mood swings
- Risk of an accident caused by a lack of sleep and reduced concentration
It can affect your daily life, including work and relationships with others.
How do I access sleep apnoea treatment?
Published on 21 November 2022