The causes, symptoms and cures of sleep apnoea

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Snoring, coughing and getting up during the night may seem normal, but they could also be symptoms of sleep apnoea. Source: Getty

Sleep is important for people of all ages, but a common problem preventing many Baby Boomers from getting a good night’s rest is obstructive sleep apnoea.

The condition impacts a person’s airways and interrupts normal breathing throughout the night, causing a lack of oxygen entering the body. In most cases, the muscles and soft tissues in the throat relax and cause a blockage, meaning there are periods of time where the person isn’t breathing. Because of this, it’s common for sufferers to wake up repeatedly throughout the night.

Research shows that sleep apnoea affects approximately 20 per cent of women and 35 per cent of men and the problem can get worse as people get older.

Speaking to Starts at 60, ResMed’s Clinical Applications Specialist Tim Given explained that obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is the most common form of sleep apnoea, but people can also be impacted by other variations of the condition. ResMed is a leading Australian health company which specialises in helping people with sleep and breathing disorders. Some people are impacted by central sleep apnoea –- where the airway remains open but there is no message from the brain to breathe.

Because people can be impacted by an array of sleep problems, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms. People with OSA may typically notice excessive daytime sleepiness, impaired concentration, irritability, waking up with headaches, unrefreshing sleep, and mood swings.

Interestingly, getting up frequently to urinate throughout the night is also a sign, as is fragmented sleep. Still, one of the biggest signs is snoring.

“If someone was looking for the factors that would differentiate OSA from possible other sleep problems, what they want to look for is the fact that they snore,” Given said. “Snoring suggests it might be some sort of obstructive sleep apnoea problem.”

Equally, waking up coughing or with a choking sensation is another warning sign, while a partner may also notice their husband or wife stop breathing completely for several seconds. Good health is dependent on sleep, which is why this condition is so dangerous.

“We talk about diet and exercise all the time and how important they are, but sleep is just as important. When we’re asleep, we don’t just go to sleep and wake up,” Given explained. “When we’re asleep, there’s a lot happening that we can’t do when we’re awake.”

This includes everything from the endocrine system being active to the production of hormones while it gives the cardiovascular system and brain a chance to rest.

“If someone has OSA, what happens is because their airway is closing off and they’re getting roused because of that, their body is making them wake up again because they need to open up their airway and get oxygen in. They’re not getting the chance to move through all these important sleep stages and have all that good rest and restoration and processing of memories that they need when they’re asleep,” Given added.

In the long-term, OSA is actually linked to an array of serious health issues including diabetes, heart failure, hypertension, obesity, stroke and arrhythmia of the heart.

While losing weight, quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption and making lifestyle modifications may prevent OSA, a lot of the time the condition due to genetic makeup, the natural way a person’s airway is structured, the ageing process and muscles in the airways becoming older and weaker. While surgery is an option in some cases, CPAP is the best way to manage the condition. CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure and the machines work by delivering positive air pressure into the airway.

“What that does is it acts like an air splint for the airway,” Given said. “When the patient goes to sleep with the mask on, because of this pressure in the airway splinting the airway open, the walls of the airway can’t collapse in on themselves. It keeps it open so the air can keep moving in and out throughout the night.”

The patient wears the mask when they sleep and breathes as normal. Getting a CPAP machine isn’t as simple as going to the store and buying one and patients typically need to talk about their symptoms with a GP first. During these consultations, symptoms such as choking, gasping, snoring and stopping breathing when asleep are important to bring up to ensure proper OSA diagnosis. Failing to explain all signs and symptoms, even if they’re embarrassing, could lead to misdiagnosis and a patient being given the wrong treatment.

The patient will then be referred for a sleep test, which they will either complete in a sleep lab or at home with equipment to record sleeping patterns.

From there, a sleep physician will sign off on a script, which people then take to a CPAP clinic to purchase their own CPAP device and sleeping mask.

“Masks are really quite sophisticated these days and a lot of time, money, development and engineering has gone into the masks that are available today,” Given explained. “Some patients will take shorter or longer than other patients to get used to them. Everyone is going to be a little bit different.”

If you or a loved one is experiencing sleeping problems, it’s always important to speak about symptoms with a GP or health professional.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you know someone who shows symptoms of sleep apnoea?

Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and information purposes only. It does not take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. It is not personalised health advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any decisions about your health or changes to medication, diet and exercise routines you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from a medical professional.

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