What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea, or sleep apnoea, is a sleep disorder that causes frequent interruptions in a person’s breathing as they sleep.
Your breathing will stop and start again while you are asleep.1
The different types of sleep apnoea
There are different types of sleep apnoea:
Obstructive sleep apnoea, OSA, is where your breathing is stopped by a blockage stopping the air flow.
Central sleep apnoea is where the brain fails to send the signal to inhale causing you to miss an, or multiple breaths.2
And mixed sleep apnoea which is a combination of the two.
Sleep apnea symptoms
Noisy breathing and loud snoring can often indicate that you may have sleep apnoea.
But the most obvious sign to look out for is recurring pauses in breathing or breathing that is frequently disrupted by snorting or gasping.
Although episodes of sleep apnoea only happen when you’re asleep, it can have a significant effect on your day to day life.
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.
Who is at risk of sleep apnea?
Those that are older, aged over 40, and those that are overweight or obese have an increased risk of experiencing all types of sleep apnoea.
Additionally, people with large necks have an increased risk, larger than 43cm/17 inches.3
Those with large tonsils, adenoids or tongue, narrow airways or a small lower jaw are also more susceptible.
Smoking and drinking alcohol before you sleep can also mean you’re more likely to experience sleep apnoea.
Other factors that can contribute to sleep apnoea include women that have been through the menopause.
Post-menopausal women may experience snoring and OSA due to the changes the body is going through which causes the throat muscles to relax more.4
Taking sleeping tablets, tranquilisers and other sedative medicines may also have a relaxing effect on the throat leading to OSA.
People experiencing nasal congestion caused by nasal polyps or a deviated septum may also be more likely to develop sleep apnoea.
What are the long-term effects of sleep apnea?
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.
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, so no air is able to reach your lungs, which creates pauses in normal breathing.5
These pauses can occur several times in one night and often last for a few seconds. You’ll often automatically wake with a snort or snore in order to breathe again.
Obstructive sleep apnea symptoms
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.
Night sweats and getting up to urinate are also other signs that you could have obstructive sleep apnoea.6
What is central sleep apnea?
Central sleep apnoea 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.7
Sleep apnea treatment
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.8
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.9
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.10
12 other sleep disorders that may be keeping you awake
More common in children under the age of 4, bedwetting typically happens less and less as the child grows older.
Medically called Bruxism, teeth grinding can occur subconsciously during sleep.
Over time this can cause tooth damage, jaw pain and headaches.
Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders
Circadian rhythms regulate our body’s sleeping and waking patterns.
Irregularities to these rhythms can make people fall asleep and wake up at inconvenient times.
This term means excessive sleepiness.
Similar to narcolepsy, those with the condition typically fall asleep at any time and having trouble staying awake during the day.
Insomnia refers to difficulty falling or staying asleep.
Although a lot of people suffer from occasional episodes, persistent insomnia can affect many others for months or years.
This rare brain disorder affects the control of sleep causing a person to fall asleep involuntarily.
Symptoms include sleep paralysis, hallucinations and excessive sleepiness.
Nightmares are upsetting dreams that can immediately wake the sleeper.
Most common in children, they can be caused by a wide range factors including traumatic events and medications.
Usually affecting children between three and eight years’ old, night terrors often cause the sleeper to wake up shouting in panic.
From walking around to performing activities like driving, sleepwalking involves carrying out complex behaviours while asleep.
Periodic Limb Movement Disorder (PLMD)
Occurring only during sleep, this disorder causes repetitive cramping or rhythmic movement of the legs.
Shift Work Sleep Disorder
Affecting shift workers and people who work at night, this condition is characterised by difficulty staying awake or alert when you are supposed to be working.
Usually happening when waking up, people with sleep paralysis are unable to move or speak for a few seconds or minutes before returning to normal.
Last updated: 10 August 2021