Sleep apnoea is one of the most common conditions affecting millions of people. It is also one of the most ignored disorders. In the simplest terms, sleep apnoea means intermittent pauses in breathing while you are asleep. The pause may be singular or multiple and may last for a few seconds. The spontaneous breathing starts again after some time. A person may or may not become aware of this pause in breathing. As it occurs while you are sleeping, most of the people do not even realize that they suffer from this affliction. It is usually their family members or bed-partner who can tell the difference.
There are three types of sleep apnoeas:
- Obstructive sleep apnoea: This is a type of sleep apnoea in which walls of the airway relax and obstruct the passage of air into the lungs. When awake, this tendency is overcome by the muscles of the upper airway, which lose their tone when a person sleeps.
- Central sleep apnoea: This is a type of apnoea in which the brain forgets to send the signal or does not send the proper signals to the lungs to breathe.
- Mixed sleep apnoea: As the name suggests, it is a combination of both, obstructive and central, sleep apnoeas.
Obstructive sleep apnoea or OSA is the most common type of sleep apnoea seen in the population. There are a number of factors that can lead to the development of OSA, being overweight being the most common factor. People, who are overweight, have more amount of soft tissue in their airway and stomach which not only causes greater obstruction in the airway but also leaves lesser space for lungs to expand during breathing. OSA is also more common in males above 40 years of age. In women, it may be experienced around menopause. People with a narrower airway are also at a higher risk of developing OSA. Chronic smoking and alcohol intake also increase the occurrence of sleep apnoea. It may also develop as a result of other diseases such as acromegaly, enlarged tonsils, adenoids, etc. People with a family history are at a greater risk.
Loud snoring typically accompanies OSA. The soft tissue obstructing the airway is the cause for this snoring as the air has to squeeze past the obstruction. Due to the reduction in breathing, the amount of oxygen in the body reduces which sends a distress signal to the brain. The person then suddenly wakes up and starts breathing again, usually with a loud snort or choking sound. The person may not fully wake up but moves from deep sleep to light sleep. This leads to restlessness and fatigue during the daytime. As a result of poor quality of sleep, the person becomes lethargic and experiences excessive day-time sleep.
A person suffering from OSA may not die due to the disease itself, but it can be an indirect cause for the development of other conditions that may prove to be fatal in the long run. It increases the risk of developing high blood pressure or diabetes. It has also been implicated as a causative agent for pulmonary hypertension and heart failure. It may lead to heart arrhythmias (irregular heart beat) or may worsen them. It reduces the sex drive. It may cause morning headaches, lethargy and impairs concentration.
Apart from leading to the development of life-threatening medical conditions, it also results in the person losing his ability to function at an optimum level. This affects not only his personal but also his professional life. People suffering from OSA are often not able to perform their best at work and end up losing promotions, if not the job altogether. In recent times snoring has often been sighted as a reason for couples separating or moving apart. Excessive daytime sleep may lead to vehicular accidents. If left untreated, OSA only aggravates and has a damaging overall affect.
The good news is that OSA is treatable. The first correction should be the removal of treatable causes such as obesity. Stop intake of any substance, like alcohol or other sedatives; that leads to reduced respiration. There are mechanical devices available that may help you improve the quality of your life. In extreme cases, surgery can also be helpful. Recognising OSA ‘s hard as there are no blood tests available. But there are other tests such as sleep study and nocturnal polysomnography that may help establish the diagnosis of the disease. If you feel you are suffering from the symptoms of OSA, consult your doctor immediately.