Sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea

What is sleep apnoea?

This is a potentially life-threatening condition in which breathing is disrupted during sleep. It has been linked to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary hypertension, memory problems, weight gain, impotency, and headaches.

Who is affected?

It affects men and women of all ages, but is thought to be more common in men. People who snore loudly and are also overweight or have high blood pressure or a physical abnormality in the nose, throat, or other parts of the upper airway may be more likely to develop sleep apnoea. Sleep apnoea seems to run in some families, so there may be a genetic basis.

What are the symptoms of sleep apnoea?

What causes sleep apnoea?

The most common type of sleep apnoea is obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). It usually affects people whose throats are narrower than normal — this can be hereditary or caused by ageing. Weight gain can contribute to the problem, as fat in the neck makes the throat narrower. Alcohol, sleeping pills and some types of allergy tablets relax the throat-opening muscles, making snoring and apnoea worse.

What happens in obstructive sleep apnoea?

In OSA the throat is sucked closed during sleep. If the throat is narrowed to a slit, the airflow is disturbed and snoring occurs. If the throat is so narrow that it is partially or completely blocked, the brain will signal the sleeper to arouse and resume breathing, so the sleeper will fight for breath until they wake up. The apnoea often ends with a snore or gasp, along with movements of the whole body.

Some people wake up before their throat muscles have recovered and are frightened by the sensation of choking, but breathing will always resume in a few seconds. OSA can occur many times during the night and sufferers may not be aware of it, although they will experience extreme daytime sleepiness and may even fall asleep during conversations or while driving a car.

How is sleep apnoea diagnosed?

Your doctor will examine your nasal passage and upper respiratory tract to exclude the possibility of swelling within the nose or oropharynx. Other investigations may be undertaken by a specialist, such as polysomnography. In this test, different body functions including electrical activity in the brain, eye movement, heart rate, respiratory effort, airflow, and blood oxygen levels are measured while you sleep.

How is sleep apnoea treated? 

What is the outlook?

Weight loss increases the likelihood of the symptoms disappearing. Ask your doctor for advice on losing weight.

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