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Sleep apnoea: explained

18th January 2024 • 3 min read
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If you regularly experience restless sleep, snoring and daytime fatigue, sleep apnoea could be the culprit.

Sleep is meant to leave us feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day. But for many people, it’s not as simple as hitting the sack and getting a solid eight hours. In fact, it’s estimated about one in five of us grapple with a major sleep disorder.

Sleep apnoea is one of these disorders. Read on to learn about the different types of sleep apnoea, how they can affect you, and – most importantly – what you can do to treat it.

What is sleep apnoea?

Sleep apnoea is a type of sleep-related breathing disorder (or sleep disordered breathing). It occurs when your breathing repeatedly stops and starts whilst you’re sleeping.

There are two types of sleep apnoea:

1. Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA)

This is the most common type of sleep apnoea. It happens when the muscles in your throat relax too much, causing a partial or total blockage of the airway. As a result, breathing is temporarily reduced or stopped (for 10 seconds to a minute or more). When this happens, the brain briefly rouses itself from sleep so you can start breathing again.

2. Central sleep apnoea (CSA)

This type of sleep apnoea is less common. CSA occurs when the brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing, causing respiratory pauses. When this happens, the body doesn’t make any attempt to wake itself up. According to Australia’s Sleep Health Foundation, CSA may be caused by a disruption in the breathing reflex, slow circulation, muscle weakness, an underlying health condition, or drugs such as morphine.

Signs and symptoms of sleep apnoea

There are some tell-tale signs of sleep apnoea. Common things to watch out for include:

  • Restless sleep 

  • Frequent night-time awakenings

  • Loud snoring or gasping for air 

  • Headaches, dry mouth and/or confusion in the morning

  • Daytime sleepiness or fatigue 

  • Mood changes 

  • Poor concentration or memory

How common is sleep apnoea and who is most likely to have it?

Sleep apnoea is one of the most common sleep disorders, and is estimated to affect about five per cent of Australians. While it can affect anyone, certain factors will increase your risk. These include:

  • Age – your throat muscles tend to relax more during sleep as you get older. 

  • Gender – men are more likely to develop sleep apnoea than women. According to the Better Health Channel, sleep apnoea affects three times as many men aged 30 years or over than women. In fact, approximately one in four men in this age group experience “some degree of sleep apnoea”.

  • Weight – excess fat in the neck can contribute to airway blockage.

  • Alcohol – drinking close to bedtime can cause the throat muscles to relax during sleep.

  • Some health conditions – including thyroid problems or enlarged tonsils or adenoids.

How sleep apnoea can affect you

As you can imagine, sleep apnoea does not make for a restful slumber. Fragmented sleep can cause you to feel drowsy, irritable and have trouble concentrating the next day.

Sleep disordered breathing can also affect your physical and mental health. If it goes untreated, it can increase your risk of developing things like high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes and depression. 

Treatment options for sleep apnoea

On the upside, sleep apnoea is highly treatable. Treatment options depend on what type of apnoea you have and how severe it is, as well as things like your age and overall health. If you suspect that you have sleep apnoea, arrange to see your GP. 

In mild cases, it may be enough to make some lifestyle changes, like cutting down on how much alcohol you drink or getting support to lose weight if needed. 

Adjusting your sleeping position can also help. Most people with OSA have more episodes when lying on their backs, so it can help to switch to side sleeping. Other people may benefit from an oral appliance, which looks like a mouthguard and works by pushing the lower jaw forward to open up the airway.

In more severe cases of OSA and CSA, a sleep apnoea machine (AKA a continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP machine) can be very effective. These machines deliver a constant stream of air that keeps your airway open while you sleep, which helps prevent breathing pauses. 

Remember, while sleep apnoea is serious, it can be managed. A visit to your GP could see you on the way to quieter nights, sweeter dreams and revitalised mornings.

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