Sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea are more common than many people think. According to Better Health*, it’s estimated that about five per cent of Australians suffer from sleep apnoea, with around one in four men over the age of 30 years affected.
Sleep apnoea – known as sleep apnea in the United States – is a sleep disorder that occurs when the walls of the throat come together during sleep. This blocks the upper airway, stopping breathing for a short amount of time (usually between 10 seconds and one minute).
When the brain registers this lack of breathing or a drop in oxygen levels, it reacts by sending the body a small wake-up call. Lasting for just a couple of seconds, this wake-up call rouses the sleeper enough to open the upper airway, allowing breathing to resume.
The sleeper may gasp or snort, but will usually fall back to sleep almost immediately, to then continue the cycle. This may happen hundreds of times a night, with the sleeper having no knowledge of it occurring.
While there are many symptoms associated with sleep apnoea, not all sufferers will recognise them as being symptoms of a significant medical condition. Some sleep apnoea sufferers may realise they are having sleeping problems, but may attribute these problems elsewhere.
Some common sleep apnoea symptoms include:
Of the three types of sleep apnoea, obstructive sleep apnoea is most common, making up 84% of sleep apnoea diagnoses**. With obstructive sleep apnoea, a blockage or obstruction in the upper airway stops airflow to the lungs.
This obstruction may be a result of the airway relaxing too much during sleep, the weight of the neck, inflamed tonsils, or structural reasons, such as the shape of the neck, nose or jaw.
Central sleep apnoea is less common, and can be a result of the airway being open, but air flow stopping because there is no effort to breathe. This is caused by a breakdown in communication between the brain and the body, where the automatic action of breathing stops.
Some sleep apnoea sufferers may have a combination of obstructive sleep apnoea and central sleep apnoea. This is generally referred to as mixed sleep apnoea.
Some risk factors make sleep apnoea more common. Knowing the risk factors associated with sleep apnoea can make it easier to diagnose – and eventually treat. Here are some of the most common risk factors that can cause sleep apnoea***:
Sleep disorders such as sleep anxiety and sleep apnoea usually offer a number of recognisable symptoms. While the symptoms mentioned previously can often point to sleep apnoea as a possibility, the condition will usually need to be formally diagnosed during a sleep study within a sleep clinic.
If you are experiencing the effects of sleep deprivation or any other sleep apnoea symptoms, it’s generally recommended that you speak to your doctor. It may be an easy fix, such as positional therapy, or it could require treatment such as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or an oral appliance.
** Morgenthaler TI et al. Complex sleep apnea syndrome: is it a unique clinical syndrome? Sleep 2006;29(9):1203-9, as referenced in: