What is Sleep Apnoea

Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA), also known as Sleep Apnoea or Apnoea, (American: Apnea) happens when something partly or completely blocks your upper airway during sleep.

These blockages may be partial or complete, and can result in some people waking in a state of shortness of breath. A ‘choking’ sensation can result, and breathing usually resumes with a loud gasp.  While some patients wake up as a result of their episodes, others can sleep through it and may not be aware that their quality of sleep is being significantly affected.

When you have this condition, during your sleep your breath can become very shallow or you may even stop breathing – briefly. It can happen many times a night in some people, and each of these events are known as apnoeas (or hypopneas).

The huge impact on other areas of one’s health condition are quite logical, when you consider that OSA reduces the flow of oxygen to vital organs.

Approximately 80% of people with sleep disorders are undiagnosed. Around 1.5 million Australians are thought to have some sleep disorder, of which OSA is the most common.  While OSA can present itself in patients with a wide range of histories, some of the recognised risk factors are:

  • Medications: certain medications, particularly sedatives, may lead to OSA.
  • Age: patients over 50 years of age may be at a higher risk for developing OSA.
  • Facial structure: some abnormalities, such as a small chin or misaligned bite can have an impact on the chance of developing OSA.
  • Family history: OSA or other breathing/sleep related issues within the family may increase risk.
  • Neck circumference: A neck circumference in excess of 43cm for men and 40cm for women may heighten the chance of a person developing OSA.
  • Diet: tobacco and alcohol consumption can lead to OSA.

OSA can manifest itself in people from a very broad range of backgrounds. While age can play a part in increasing the risk factor, OSA can manifest itself in people of all ages and genders. Men are at slightly higher risk than women, although this levels out post-menopause.

Research indicates that there are a range of correlations between OSA and other health concerns and related issues:

  • A person suffering from OSA is seven times more likely to be in a car accident.
  • Among obese people, 77% suffer from OSA.
  • Nearly 70% of stroke victims also have OSA.
  • Of those suffering from Type 2 Diabetes, 58% have OSA.
  • 83% of people who receive medication for high blood pressure have OSA.

There are many symptoms and indicators of a person possibly having OSA, and OSA patients vary in their exhibition of symptoms. They will often display at least one of the below:

  • Snoring
  • Excessive shortness of breath during sleeping, often manifested as choking or gasping
  • Fatigue throughout the day
  • Behavioural changes, such as irritability, anxiety and in some cases, depression
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Reduced energy
  • Restless and disrupted sleeping patterns
  • Diminished cognitive abilities, particularly memory and concentration
  • A predilection for napping during the day
  • Sore throat and/or dry mouth in the morning
  • Headaches upon waking

Because many people are unaware that they suffer from OSA, it is possible for some patients to believe they are not experiencing some symptoms, although it will become apparent during a sleep study that they are.

Reliable statistics on the prevalence of OSA in Australia are difficult to obtain. Occurrence varies widely across demographics, and OSA has only recently received significantly funded studies. Some studies indicate that around one in ten Australians suffer from OSA. A 2016 study found that:

  • 2% of people aged 18-25 are diagnosed with OSA.
  • 8% of people aged 45-55 are diagnosed with OSA.

However, statistical estimates for people who remain undiagnosed present significantly higher numbers. For example:

  • Up to 49% of males aged 40-69 may suffer from OSA.
  • Up to 62% of males older than 70 may suffer from OSA.

OSA is significantly associated with a range of medical concerns, many of which can cause serious health complications. Patients with OSA typically have poorer physical and mental health, reduced overall wellbeing, concentration and memory.

Some of the other medical concerns that have a statistically significant association with OSA include:

  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Diabetes
  • Hypercholesterolemia
  • Hypertension
  • Heart attack and heart failure
  • Angina
  • Depression
  • PTSD
  • Anxiety-related disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Obesity
  • Gout
  • Insomnia
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Reduction in cognitive abilities
  • Cardiovascular disease

When you have this condition, during your sleep your breath can become very shallow or you may even stop breathing – briefly. It can happen many times a night in some people, and each of these events are known as apnoeas (or hypopneas).