Sleep Apnoea Symptoms and Treatment

Adequate sleep is essential for the good health of everyone, but when sleep apnoea occurs, a significant deterioration in the quality of life may develop. 'Apnoea' means 'no breathing', and patients with sleep apnoea stop breathing for periods from 10 to 60 seconds on many occasions whilst asleep during the night. There are two reasons for sleep apnoea developing. The most common cause is due to the small muscles at the back of the throat and in the roof of the mouth relaxing completely and allowing this tissue to become very soft and flabby. The airway tends to collapse as the patient breathes in, closing it off and preventing breathing. Snoring is also caused in the same way. Most patients with this form of sleep apnoea are overweight middle-aged men. The other cause is an effect in the brain, whereby the urge to breathe is suppressed during very deep sleep. Elderly men with high blood pressure most commonly fit into this category.

Patients complain of tiredness during the day, morning headaches, personality changes, poor concentration, bed-wetting and impotence. The sleeping partner complains about the other person's loud snoring and thrashing restless sleep. The diagnosis can best be made in a sleep laboratory, where the patients sleep and breathing pattern can be monitored through an entire night.

Treatment involves weight loss, and avoiding alcohol, sedatives and smoking, and these steps alone may be sufficient to cure the problem. In persistent cases, treatment can involve a small mask being fitted to the patient's nose, and air being blown up the nose at a slight pressure (with a small electrically driven blower called a continuous positive airway pressure blower). This 'splints' the airway open, causing air to enter the lungs and breathing to continue normally. In severe cases, a clear airway may also be established by surgery to the back of the throat and nose to remove the uvula and part of the soft palate.

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