Sleep Apnoea: Signs you shouldn’t sleep through
It’s the middle of the night and a man sleeps. As he breathes, the muscles in his throat close. He is without air for anywhere between ten seconds to a minute. His brain registers the lack of oxygen and sends a wake-up call, rousing the sleeper. His airway reopens and he drifts back to sleep. This cycle is called Obstructive Sleep Apnoea and in severe cases it repeats hundreds of times a night. It affects five per cent of Australians, with one in four men over the age of 30 affected.
Many people are unaware of their apnoea, although family members may notice their snoring or worry when they breathe irregularly. Apnoea differs to normal snoring where some air still enters the throat causing noisy vibrations. Due to their disrupted sleep, people with OSA are continually tired and may experience morning headaches, poor concentration, depression, reduced sex drive and increased urination.
- Obesity is a common cause of OSA as fatty tissue can narrow the throat. Other causes include:
- Alcohol consumption (relaxes the throat muscles and decreases arousal responses)
- Nose or throat problems (eg. enlarged tonsils or thyroid gland swellings)
- Nasal congestion from smoking or hayfever
- Sleeping tablets or sedatives
- Facial bone or muscle shape
- Central Sleep Apnoea (CSA) is less common than OSA. It is caused by a weakened respiratory system rather than an obstruction to the upper airway.
Why is it a problem?
If you have sleep apnoea you are more likely to have high blood pressure and are at a higher risk for motor vehicle accidents due to tiredness. Severe sleep apnoea may increase your risk of diabetes, heart attack, stroke or depression. It also disrupts your ability to function well at work and in relationships.
For people with mild OSA, losing weight and reducing alcohol intake may be all that’s needed. Treating nasal congestion, limiting the use of sedatives and improving lung function can help too.
For more OSA one of the most effective treatments is nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). CPAP uses a small air pump to deliver gentle pressure to a mask covering your nose. This keeps your throat open – stopping snoring and the long-term effects of apnoea. Another common treatment is a special mouthguard, which keeps the airway open by holding the jaw forward. If all these treatments are ineffective, there are also surgical options your doctor can discuss with you.