Sleep apnoea or obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA)

Sleep apnoea is a condition that interrupts your breathing when you sleep, disturbing your sleep and leaving you tired. The most common type of sleep apnoea is obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) syndrome, which is caused by blocked airways.

Patients with sleep apnoea may have a full or partial blockage of their airways, which can interrupt breathing during sleep for ten seconds or more, sometimes hundreds of times a night. Most patients snore loudly, with laboured and loud breathing which can be interspersed with gasping and snorting.

Sleep apnoea can be a serious condition because the brain and body may not get enough oxygen to function correctly. If it is not treated, sleep apnoea can significantly reduce your quality of life, make everyday tasks difficult to perform well, and lead to a number of health problems, including:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Stroke
  • Heart failure, irregular heart rhythm, heart attacks
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Diabetes

It is not always clear exactly what causes sleep apnoea. It can affect anyone at any age, including children. Most people’s airways relax when they’re sleeping, but this doesn’t normally lead to breathing difficulties. There appear to be a number of factors that restrict the airways, potentially causing sleep apnoea, including:

  • being obese/overweight increases the bulk of soft tissue in the neck which can restrict the airways; and excess stomach fat can adversely affect breathing
  • being male – sleep apnoea is more common in men than in women
  • being 40 years of age or more
  • having a large neck increases your risk of sleep apnoea
  • taking sedatives
  • having abnormalities such as large tonsils, adenoids or tongue, a small airway, or a small lower jaw
  • consuming alcohol can make snoring and sleep apnoea worse
  • smoking
  • the menopause - changes in hormone levels may cause the airways to relax more
  • a family history of sleep apnoea
  • suffering nasal congestion - for example, because of a deviated septum or nasal polyps

The symptoms of sleep apnoea include loud snoring, laboured and noisy breathing, and periods when breathing is interrupted, often accompanied by gasping or snorting. These symptoms are often not initially noticed by the patient, but may be identified by someone else while you are asleep.

Other symptoms include night sweats and waking up frequently during the night needing to urinate. Repeated nights of interrupted sleep can leave you feeling very tired and sleepy during the day, which can lead to difficulty concentrating, mood swings and depression.

During an episode, the lack of oxygen triggers your brain to pull you out of deep sleep – either to a lighter sleep or to wakefulness – so your airway reopens and you can breathe normally.

These repeated sleep interruptions can make you feel very tired during the day. You'll usually have no memory of your interrupted breathing, so you may be unaware you have a problem.

Symptoms can include:

During sleep:

  • loud snoring
  • laboured and noisy breathing
  • frequent interruption of breathing (often accompanied by gasping or snorting)

During day:

  • tiredness, sleepiness, difficulty in concentrating

After discussing your symptoms, if your doctor thinks you may have sleep apnoea, you may be referred to a specialist who will be able to carry out further tests to confirm the initial diagnosis. The tests could include being monitored during your sleep to record your breathing and sleep patterns. Your nose and throat may also be examined to see if there are any abnormalities responsible for nasal congestion.

What next?

If you are suffering with a suspected condition, you should seek the advice of your doctor who will be able to refer you to Benenden Hospital for diagnosis and treatment.

There are four ways to access treatment at Benenden Hospital which include self-funding, using private medical insurance or your Benenden membership, or through the NHS e-Referral scheme.