Sleep apnoea cases have doubled in recent years – here’s what to know about the little-known (but very common!) health condition

Snoring isn’t just annoying AF for whoever shares your bed, it could also be a sign that you’re suffering from sleep apnoea, a common health disorder that inhibits breathing and seriously interrupts sleep.

In fact, a 2019 study found that sleep apnoea rates had almost doubled over the last 20 years, with the Sleep Apnoea Trust estimating that 10 million people in the UK have it. And guess what? Women are the most likely to go undiagnosed.

So don’t ignore the snore, and keep reading to find out all about sleep apnoea, its causes and what you can do about it. We’ve enlisted the help of Professor Esther Rodriguez Villegas, founder of medtech startup Acurable and creator of the AcuPebble – a medical device for sleep apnoea detection – who has broken down the science.

What is sleep apnoea?

“Sleep apnoea is a condition that causes the sufferer to stop breathing many times per hour during sleep, most often because the muscles in their mouth, nose and throat relax and cause the airway to narrow or close altogether (this is called obstructive sleep apnoea, or OSA),” says Professor Villegas.

“The sufferer might not even be aware this is happening, but each time there is one of those respiratory pauses, sleep is briefly disturbed. That strains the cardio-respiratory system and stops those who have the condition from getting a proper night’s rest.”

The common condition can be broken down into two types: apnoea and hypopnoea. The first is when the muscles and soft tissue in the throat become so relaxed that they cause a total blockage of the airway. It’s classified as apnoea when the airflow is blocked for 10 seconds or more.

Hypopnoea, on the other hand, is a partial blockage of the airway, preventing at least 50 per cent of normal airflow for 10 seconds or more.

People with severe apnoea can experience these blockages multiple times throughout the night (sometimes as often as every two minutes!).

Esther adds: “OSA affects up to 23% of the adult population and 5% of children, but most people don’t know they have it. This is particularly true for women, who are less likely to go to the doctor because they snore – one of the common OSA symptoms – or seek help because they feel tired or low. These feelings are often dismissed by women themselves or even misdiagnosed by doctors as symptoms of depression or menopause, and sleep apnoea isn’t considered.”

What happens during sleep apnoea?

The most common form of sleep apnoea is when the muscles in the throat excessively relax, as detailed above, which is known as obstructive sleep apnoea.

Central sleep apnoea, however, occurs when your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing, while some people experience complex sleep apnoea syndrome – which means that they experience both obstructive sleep apnoea and central sleep apnoea.

What are the symptoms?

“Common symptoms of sleep apnoea are snoring – or waking up occasionally gasping or choking,” says Professor Villegas. “At first, you may not be aware of having these symptoms, which are often noticed first by a partner or family member. Other noticeable symptoms include feeling tired during the day or waking up in the morning feeling unrefreshed. Irritability, brain fog, depression or lack of concentration can also be common symptoms, and the lack of proper sleep might result in being more accident-prone than usual.”

When the breathing blockages happen, your brain pulls you out of deep sleep into either a lighter sleep or total wakefullness to get you breathing properly again. If your brain is doing that every two minutes, you can imagine the toll it takes on your daily energy levels – which is why you might find yourself feeling irritable in the day, or having difficulty concentrating.

Why does it happen?

There are many, many causes of the common sleep disorder but some of the main links include being overweight, smoking, taking medication with a sedative effect (like a sleeping pill), a deviated septum (the main bone in your nose). Being male also ups your chances of having sleep apnoea.

There are also some less common causes, like having an abnormal neck structure, so it’s important you check in with your doctor to find the best solution.

Esther adds: “Sleep apnoea can affect anyone, but it’s more common in people who are middle aged or older, overweight, pregnant, already suffer from certain conditions, or who have a family history of the disease. Drinking alcohol before going to bed and smoking can also increase the chances of developing OSA.

“Men are more likely to be diagnosed with the condition, but it’s important for women to be aware of the signs, especially during pregnancy and after menopause when OSA becomes more common. Women are also more likely to develop the condition if they suffer from hypothyroidism or polycystic ovary syndrome.”

What can I do about it?

“Sometimes sleep apnoea doesn’t need medical intervention and can be treated with lifestyle changes like losing weight or cutting down on alcohol before bed,” says Professor Villegas. “For adults, if a doctor thinks treatment is needed, they may provide the patient with a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine to wear at night. This gently pumps air into a mask worn over the mouth and nose, which keeps the airway open and maintains a consistent flow of oxygen during the night.

“CPAP is still the most common treatment option for sleep apnoea, but there are alternatives, such as a mandibular advancement device, which is an oral device that repositions the jaw and expands the airway. In some cases, especially in the case of children, surgery might be appropriate to reduce the obstruction and improve breathing.”

Source: Glamour Magazine

About the Beacon Dental Sleep Medicine Clinic

Located in the Beacon Consultants Clinic in Sandyford, our facility collaborates with major hospital sleep disorder clinics and other specialists and have been active in the development and use of oral sleep appliances in the area of Dental Sleep Medicine in Ireland over many years.

We utilise a range of new technologies and treatment approaches. These include the use of customised digitally fabricated oral devices with specific sensor technology use to enable monitoring for ongoing evaluation.

As a result, the clinic has been successful in assisting many patients, and oftentimes also importantly, their sleep disrupted partners, in achieving more optimal and healthy sleep experiences.