icon cross Comprehensive Guide to Sleep Apnoea: Understanding, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Sleep Apnoea is a prevalent sleep disorder characterised by pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep. These interruptions disrupt the normal sleep cycle, leading to fragmented sleep and various health complications. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the intricacies of Sleep Apnoea, including its definition, types, causes, symptoms, diagnosis methods, potential health consequences, and treatment options. By increasing awareness and understanding, individuals can seek appropriate medical assistance for the effective management of Sleep Apnoea and improve their overall well-being.

Introduction to Sleep Apnoea

Definition of Sleep Apnoea:

Sleep Apnoea is a sleep disorder characterised by repetitive pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep. These pauses, known as apnoeas, can last from a few seconds to minutes and occur multiple times throughout the night.


Types of Sleep Apnoea:

There are three main types of Sleep Apnoea: Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA), Central Sleep Apnoea (CSA), and Complex Sleep Apnoea Syndrome (CSAS). OSA is the most common type and occurs when the airway is partially or completely blocked during sleep. CSA occurs when the brain fails to send appropriate signals to the muscles responsible for breathing. CSAS is a combination of both Obstructive and Central Sleep Apnoea.


Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA): Obstructive Sleep Apnoea is classified by severity based on the number of apnoeas and hypopnoeas (shallow breaths) that occur per hour of sleep. Severity ranges from mild to severe. In cases of severe Sleep Apnoea, patients can experience more than 30 apnoea events per hour. It is considered normal for everyone to have between 0 and 4.9 apnoeas in an hour.

  • Mild Sleep Apnoea is defined as 5-15 apnoeas and/or hypopnoeas per hour of sleep
  • Moderate Sleep Apnoea is defined as 5-30 apnoeas and/or hypopnoeas per hour of sleep
  • Severe Sleep Apnoea is defined as 5-30 apnoeas and/or hypopnoeas per hour of sleep


Central Sleep Apnoea (CSA): Central Sleep Apnoea (CSA) is a type of Sleep Apnoea characterised by the brain’s failure to send proper signals to the muscles responsible for breathing during sleep. Unlike OSA, which is caused by physical blockage of the airway, CSA involves a dysfunction in the central nervous system’s control of breathing. This disruption leads to intermittent pauses in breathing during sleep.


Prevalence and Risk Factors:

Sleep Apnoea affects people of all ages and genders, although certain risk factors increase the likelihood of developing the condition. These factors include obesity, advanced age, male gender, family history, anatomical abnormalities, smoking, alcohol consumption, and certain medical conditions such as congestive heart failure and diabetes.

Understanding Sleep Apnoea

Causes of Sleep Apnoea:

The causes of Sleep Apnoea can vary depending on the type. OSA is primarily caused by the relaxation of the throat muscles during sleep, leading to airway obstruction. CSA results from a failure in the central nervous system to regulate breathing. Contributing factors include obesity, physical attributes of the airway, neurological conditions, and medication use.


Pathophysiology of Sleep Apnoea:

Sleep Apnoea involves a complex interplay of physiological factors. In OSA, the collapse of the upper airway obstructs the normal airflow, leading to decreased oxygen levels and increased carbon dioxide levels in the body. CSA occurs due to a lack of respiratory effort caused by a malfunction in the brain’s respiratory control centres.


How Sleep Apnoea Affects the Body:

Sleep Apnoea can have profound effects on overall health and well-being. The recurrent interruptions in breathing can result in sleep fragmentation, leading to daytime sleepiness, fatigue, poor concentration, and impaired cognitive function. Sleep Apnoea is also associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, metabolic disorders, and mental health conditions.

Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Apnoea

Common Symptoms of Sleep Apnoea:

The most common symptom of Sleep Apnoea is loud and chronic snoring, often accompanied by pauses in breathing, gasping, or choking during sleep. Other symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and restless sleep.


Sleep Apnoea in Children:

Sleep Apnoea can also affect children, but the symptoms may differ from those of adults. Children may experience restless sleep, excessive sweating during sleep, bedwetting, behavioural issues, and poor academic performance. Recognising and addressing Sleep Apnoea in children is crucial for their overall development and well-being.


Identifying Sleep Apnoea in Adults:

Sleep Apnoea in adults can often go undiagnosed or mistaken for other conditions. Besides snoring and daytime sleepiness, symptoms such as a dry mouth or sore throat upon waking, frequent night-time awakenings, and difficulty staying asleep may indicate the presence of Sleep Apnoea.

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    patients on a waiting list for a sleep test – Nov 22

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Impact of Untreated Sleep Apnoea

Cardiovascular Consequences:

Untreated Sleep Apnoea can increase the risk of developing or worsening cardiovascular conditions. The repeated drops in oxygen levels and increased carbon dioxide levels during apnoea episodes can lead to hypertension, heart disease, arrhythmias, and an increased risk of stroke.


Neurological and Cognitive Effects:

Sleep Apnoea can negatively impact cognitive function and overall brain health. The intermittent interruptions in breathing disrupt the normal sleep architecture, impairing memory consolidation, attention, and concentration. Additionally, untreated Sleep Apnoea is associated with an increased risk of developing neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.


Metabolic Consequences:

Sleep Apnoea is closely linked to metabolic disorders, including insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, and obesity. The disrupted sleep patterns and hormonal imbalances associated with Sleep Apnoea can contribute to weight gain and difficulty in maintaining a healthy metabolic profile.


Impact on Mental Health:

Sleep Apnoea has been associated with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. Sleep disturbances and oxygen deprivation can disrupt the regulation of neurotransmitters and hormones, contributing to the development or worsening of these conditions.


Relationship with Other Medical Conditions:

Sleep Apnoea is often comorbid with other medical conditions. It is commonly seen in individuals with type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and certain respiratory conditions such as asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Treating Sleep Apnoea may have a positive impact on managing these comorbidities.

Concerned about your Sleep?

If you suffer from snoring or other breathing-related sleep problems, there is a chance you may be suffering from Sleep Apnoea. It is important to know that you are not alone. 5% of the UK adult population with Sleep Apnoea are undiagnosed. That equates to around 2.5 million people.

On average is takes 7 years from the onset of Sleep Apnoea symptoms before people seek medical confirmation and treatment.

Take the first step today with our Free Online Risk Test, a multiple choice questionnaire that can can determine your risk of having Sleep Apnoea.

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Diagnosis of Sleep Apnoea

Medical History and Physical Examination:

The diagnosis of Sleep Apnoea requires a medical history assessment, including an evaluation of the patient’s symptoms, medical conditions, and lifestyle factors. A physical examination may also be conducted to identify anatomical abnormalities or signs of underlying conditions that contribute to Sleep Apnoea.


Sleep Study: Polysomnography:

Polysomnography is the gold standard diagnostic test for Sleep Apnoea. It involves an overnight stay in a sleep lab, during which various physiological parameters are monitored, including brain waves, eye movements, heart rate, muscle activity, and breathing patterns. This test helps determine the presence, severity, and type of Sleep Apnoea.


Home Sleep Testing:

Home sleep testing is a more convenient and cost-effective alternative to in-lab Polysomnography. It involves using portable devices to monitor key parameters during sleep, such as breathing patterns, oxygen levels, and heart rate. Home sleep testing is typically recommended for individuals with a high likelihood of moderate to severe OSA and no other significant medical conditions.


Additional Diagnostic Tools:

In some cases, additional diagnostic tools may be used to evaluate Sleep Apnoea. This may include using a nasal airflow sensor, which measures the airflow through the nose, or a nocturnal oximetry device, which monitors oxygen levels during sleep. These tools can provide valuable information to support the diagnosis and severity assessment of the condition.

Treatment Options for Sleep Apnoea

Lifestyle Modifications:

Lifestyle changes play a significant role in managing Sleep Apnoea. These may include weight loss for overweight individuals, regular exercise to improve overall fitness, avoiding alcohol and sedatives, establishing consistent sleep schedules, and maintaining good sleep hygiene practices.


Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) Therapy:

CPAP therapy is the most common and effective treatment for moderate to severe Obstructive Sleep Apnoea. It involves wearing a mask connected to a machine that delivers a continuous stream of pressurised air to keep the airway open during sleep.



Tips to keep your CPAP mask on

Understanding CPAP Therapy

CPAP therapy involves a few key components: a CPAP machine, a mask, and tubing. The CPAP machine draws in room air, filters it, and pressurises it to a prescribed level or auto-adjusts the pressure up when it detects an apnoea event, and decreases again once the apnoea has passed. The pressurised air is then delivered through the tubing and mask, which is worn over the nose, mouth, or both, depending on the individual’s needs and preferences. The continuous flow of pressurised air acts as a splint, keeping the airway open and allowing for normal breathing throughout the night.

Once in place and working, the impact can be dramatic with greatly improved sleep.

Oral Appliances:

Oral appliances, such as Mandibular Advancement Devices (MAD), are custom-fitted devices worn during sleep. They reposition the jaw and tongue to maintain an open airway, making them a viable treatment option for some individuals with mild to moderate Sleep Apnoea or those who cannot tolerate CPAP therapy.


Surgery and Other Interventions:

Surgical interventions may be considered for severe cases of Sleep Apnoea or when other treatment options have been ineffective. Procedures may involve removing the excess tissue from the throat, correcting structural abnormalities, or repositioning the jaw. Other interventions, such as upper airway stimulation therapy and positional therapy, may also be options in specific cases.


Alternative and Complementary Therapies:

Alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and herbal remedies, have been explored and used to assist the primary treatments for Sleep Apnoea. While some individuals may find symptom relief with these therapies, more research is needed to establish their efficacy and safety.

Managing Sleep Apnoea: Tips and Strategies

Sleep Hygiene Practices:

Practising good sleep hygiene is essential for individuals with Sleep Apnoea. This includes establishing a consistent sleep schedule, creating a sleep-friendly environment, limiting electronic device use before bed, and practising relaxation techniques to promote restful sleep.


Positional Therapy:

Positional therapy involves avoiding sleeping on the back and adopting side sleeping positions to reduce the frequency of apnoea episodes. It can benefit individuals with Positional Sleep Apnoea or mild cases of OSA.


Weight Management and Exercise:

Weight loss, through a combination of a healthy diet and regular exercise, is an important aspect of managing Sleep Apnoea, especially in cases where excess weight or obesity is a contributing factor. Losing weight can help reduce the severity of symptoms and improve overall sleep quality.


Alcohol, Smoking, and Medication:

Avoiding alcohol consumption, smoking, and using sedatives or muscle relaxants close to bedtime is recommended, as these substances can relax the throat muscles and worsen symptoms.


Managing Sleep Apnoea in Children:

Managing Sleep Apnoea in children requires a multidisciplinary approach involving healthcare professionals specialising in paediatrics, sleep medicine, and Otolaryngology. Treatment options may include the removal of tonsils or adenoids, weight management, Continuous Positive Airway Pressure therapy (CPAP), and addressing any underlying medical conditions.

Sleep Apnoea and Special Populations

Sleep Apnoea in Women:

Sleep Apnoea is often underdiagnosed in women due to differences in symptoms and presentation compared to men. Hormonal changes, pregnancy, menopause, and anatomical differences can influence the occurrence and manifestation of Sleep Apnoea in women. Recognising these unique factors is essential for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment.


Sleep Apnoea in Older Adults:

Sleep Apnoea becomes more prevalent as individuals age. Age-related changes in muscle tone and increased comorbidities can contribute to the development or worsening of the condition in older adults. Proper diagnosis and management are crucial to maintain overall health and well-being in this population.


Sleep Apnoea in Pregnancy:

Pregnancy can increase the risk of developing or exacerbating Sleep Apnoea due to hormonal changes, weight gain, and anatomical factors. Sleep Apnoea during pregnancy can adversely affect both the mother and the developing foetus. Prompt identification and appropriate management are vital for the health of both.


Sleep Apnoea in Children and Adolescents:

Sleep Apnoea is increasingly recognised in children and adolescents, often due to enlarged tonsils or adenoids. Untreated Sleep Apnoea in this population can impact growth, development, cognitive function, and behaviour. Early detection and intervention are essential to prevent long-term complications.

Frequently Asked Questions about Sleep Apnoea

Can Sleep Apnoea Be Cured?

While Sleep Apnoea is a chronic condition, it can be effectively managed through various treatment options. Lifestyle modifications, Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy, oral appliances (MAD), and surgical interventions can significantly reduce or eliminate symptoms in many individuals.


How Long Can a Person Live with Untreated Sleep Apnoea?

Untreated Sleep Apnoea can have serious health consequences and potentially reduce lifespan. The associated cardiovascular, metabolic, and neurological complications increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other life-threatening conditions. If left untreated, Obstructive Sleep Apnoea can shorten your life by anywhere between 12-15 years.


Is Sleep Apnoea Genetic?

Genetic factors can contribute to the development of Sleep Apnoea, although the condition is typically influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Having a family history of Sleep Apnoea increases the likelihood of developing the disorder.


Can Weight Loss Cure Sleep Apnoea?

Weight loss can significantly improve the symptoms, especially in cases where excess weight or obesity is a contributing factor. Adopting a healthy diet and engaging in regular physical activity can help reduce the severity of Sleep Apnoea and, in some cases, eliminate symptoms.


Can Sleep Apnoea Go Away on Its Own?

Sleep Apnoea typically does not go away on its own, especially if the underlying causes are not addressed. Prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment are essential for managing Sleep Apnoea effectively and improving the overall quality of life.


Sleep Apnoea is a common sleep disorder with significant health implications. Recognising the signs and symptoms, obtaining an accurate diagnosis, and seeking appropriate treatment is vital for effectively managing the condition. By following the recommended treatment options, adopting healthy lifestyle practices, and working closely with healthcare professionals, individuals with Sleep Apnoea can experience improved sleep quality, enhanced well-being, and reduced health risks. Remember, proper sleep is the foundation of good health.


Why am I waking up at 3am? Take an In-Home Sleep Test from IntusHealthcare to find out

The Sleep Test

The first step to understanding if you have Obstructive Sleep Apnoea is to take a sleep test. Our revolutionary In-Home Sleep Test can determine if you have Sleep Apnoea in as little as 7 days.

After identifying the risk factors and analysing the data from your sleep study, our team of NHS qualified sleep technicians can provide you with accurate confirmation in less than 48 hours.

If your result is negative, you can sleep a little easier and focus on what else could be causing your sleep problems. If the result is positive, you can discuss the result with your GP or begin the treatment you need to manage your symptoms right away.