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Understanding obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome

Obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome is the most common form of apnoea. Here is some information to help you understand how obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome can affect your life and what can be done about it.

What is sleep apnoea?

Apnoea literally means "cessation of breath." If you have sleep apnoea, your breath can become very shallow or you may even stop breathing while you are asleep. This state of not breathing can occur up to hundreds of times a night.

What is obstructive sleep apnoea?

Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) - also called obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome - occurs when there are repeated episodes of complete or partial blockage of the upper airway during sleep. During a sleep apnoea episode, the diaphragm and chest muscles work harder trying to open the airway. Breathing usually resumes with a loud gasp, snort, or body jerk. These episodes can interfere with sound sleep. They can also reduce the flow of oxygen to vital organs and cause irregularities in heart rhythm.

What are the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnoea?

The person with OSA is not the first to recognise the signs. OSA is often first noticed by the bed partner or a person who observes the patient at rest. Many people who have OSA have no sleep complaints.

The most common obstructive sleep apnoea symptoms include:

  • Daytime sleepiness or fatigue
  • A dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening
  • Headaches in the morning
  • Intellectual impairment, such as trouble concentrating, forgetfulness, or irritability
  • Night sweats
  • Restlessness during sleep
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Snoring
  • Sudden awakenings with a sensation of gasping or choking

Symptoms in children may not be as obvious. They include:

  • Bedwetting
  • Daytime mouth breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Excessive sweating at night
  • Inward movement of the ribcage when inhaling
  • Learning and behavioural disorders
  • Poor school performance
  • Sluggishness or sleepiness (often misinterpreted as laziness in the classroom)
  • Snoring
  • Unusual sleeping positions, such as sleeping on the hands and knees, or with the neck hyper-extended

Who gets sleep apnoea?

Sleep apnoea is a relatively common condition that affects men more than women. According to the NHS, about 4% of men and 2% of women have obstructive sleep apnoea. The condition is most common in people aged 40 or over, although it can affect people of all ages, including children.

Obesity is a major risk factor for sleep apnoea because excessive body fat can place strain on the muscles in the throat.

The condition is also more common among people who have smaller airways in their nose, throat, or mouth. The small airway could be related to the actual size and shape of the airway, or to obstructions or other medical conditions that are causing obstructions.

Babies and small children may have sleep apnoea that is caused by swollen tonsils. Adults may have an enlarged uvula - the flap of tissue that hangs at the back of the throat - or soft palate - the roof of the mouth near the throat.

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