What is obstructive sleep apnoea?

Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) is a condition in which breathing stops involuntarily for brief periods of time during sleep. This is normally due to the narrowing of the airway at the back of the throat. Periods when breathing stops are called apnoea or apnoeic episodes.

Click on the video on the right for an explanation of obstructive sleep apnoea and how it may be affecting your sleep and wellbeing.

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Sleep apnoea causes

There are two main types of sleep apnoea: Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) and Central Sleep Apnoea (CSA). 85% of people with sleep apnoea have OSA, and a sleep test will help your doctor determine which one you have.

Obstructive sleep apnoea is caused by the muscles in the back of your throat relaxing and interfering with your breathing while you sleep.

The picture on the left shows air flowing through the nose and mouth during breathing in a person without sleep apnoea. Click to scroll and see what happens during sleep apnoea.

or be completely blocked many times per night without you being aware of it.  This constant narrowing and blocking of the airway reduces oxygen to the brain, making you feel sleepy and without energy the next day.

Blocked airway

When your airway is completely blocked, your brain responds to the low oxygen level in your blood by briefly waking you from sleep so that you can take a breath. Your partner may notice that you make a gasping or choking sound when this happens. Constantly being woken up during the night means you don't get into a deep sleep, so you don't wake up feeling refreshed and energetic.

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Sleep apnoea signs

Snoring is the most common reason why most people go to their doctor to discuss their sleep. Often, this is at the direct request of their sleeping partner!

Other signs that you may have OSA include:

A feeling of being poorly rested after sleep is common, along with the need to take afternoon or daily naps. Because the sleep apnoea events result in repeated sleep interruptions throughout the night, for many people the quality of sleep is affected more than the quantity, in particular deep sleep and rapid eye movement sleep (REM). Loss of sleep during these stages cause the greatest degree of daytime sleepiness. This can affect many aspects of your life including your social life, work life and your ability to drive safely.

If you regularly wake during the night gasping for air, this may be cause for concern. Sometimes your bed partner will be the one who notices a pause in breathing, as though you are holding your breath for several seconds before a loud gasp.

Research suggests that there is a link between obstructive sleep apnoea and erectile dysfunction.

When we stop breathing, we automatically move around, trying to get into a position where the airway is more open. You may feel like you never reach a deep, restorative sleep. This coupled with other symptoms could be a sign of sleep apnoea

Studies reveal that when people fail to get enough sleep, concentration, coordination, memory, and mood suffer. Without restorative sleep, brain power suffers.

If the airway collapses during inspiration (a breath in) while sleeping, the effort of the diaphragm pulling up to breath can create negative pressure in the chest. This pressure can in turn lead to narrowing of the oesophagus, causing it to act like a straw, pulling the contents of the stomach up through the oesophagus and throat, creating the acid burning feeling of gastric reflux in the chest and throat.   

Airway obstruction can result in significant changes within the bloodstream along with increased carbon monoxide. The headaches affect both sides of the head and usually resolve within thirty minutes of waking, because once you’re awake, the lungs move air in and out more efficiently and the carbon dioxide level returns to normal.

Many people with sleep apnoea sleep with their mouths open so this is the likely culprit of a dry mouth or a sore throat.

Many important functions take place in your body while you sleep.  Without necessary rest, hormone levels that play a role in how hungry you feel can be disrupted. Feeling tired can have you reaching for sugary treats or caffeinated drinks, often loaded with calories, to help you wake up and to satisfy your increased hunger. Unfortunately, this can cause a vicious cycle as those extra calories will lead to weight gain which in turn leads to further sleep disruptions.  This is due to the extra weight pressure on your throat causing further collapse of the airway.

Untreated sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea is a serious and relatively common condition. More than 1 billion people around the world may have sleep apnoeic, and up to 80% of these patients may not be treated. Untreated sleep apnoea has been linked to:

• High blood pressure
• Heart disturbances or arrhythmias
• Diabetes
• Heart failure
• Car and truck accidents
• Work accidents
• Stroke

The good news is that diagnosis, and successful sleep apnoea treatment can relieve the symptoms and reduce the long-term risks to your health.


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Patient stories

Michael’s story 

“I have been using my Somnomed® device for about two years now. It has completely improved the quality of sleep that I get and consequently certain aspects of my life for the better.

On the rare occasion that I forget to put it in the device my sleep deteriorates immediately. It’s invaluable.” Read more

Liz’s story

“Having suffered jaw and tooth pain over several months and following several appointments with my GP and regular dentist to no avail, I asked April (dentist) if she could give me a second opinion. After careful consultation April suggested that sleep apnoea and teeth grinding might be behind the issues and recommended a Somnomed® device to wear at night. Read more

Simon’s story

“My name is Simon Wilsdon I am a general dentist in York with a special interest in dental sleep medicine. Over several years I have experienced mild sleep apnoea and, unfortunately for my wife, loud snoring. I have tried several different mandibular advancement devices over the years. These have given initial improvement but nothing long lasting and were uncomfortable over time. After investigating different options, I decided to give the new SomnoMed® Avant appliance a try. Read more

Mohammed’s story

Mohammed was diagnosed with Severe Sleep Apnoea in 2018.

“For the first year after my diagnosis, I had a CPAP machine in the home, but I really struggled with it, due to the anxiety of the mask being on my face all night. When I saw my Sleep Consultant, I was advised that I should not drive, and my driving license has now been revoked for more than 2 years. I have a family at home, with four children, so having no driving license has really affected our day-to-day lives. Little things like food shopping and trips out are much more difficult. Read more

Roy’s story

Like many people, l became aware that l was snoring during the night and feeling tired in the morning. This led me down the route of seeing my GP who felt l may have obstructive sleep apnoea and referred me to the hospital for further tests. There, l was given the Epworth Sleep Study questionnaire to complete which indicated l had daytime sleepiness but not severely. However further investigation was necessary and an overnight hospital stay was arranged where l had a sleep study conducted. Read more

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