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medical questionnaire where someone has selected sleep apnoea
By In-house Team, Circle Health Group

What is sleep apnoea?

We share expert advice about sleep apnoea and how to manage living with the condition

Sleep apnoea is a condition where your breathing repeatedly stops and starts while you are asleep.

Although sleep apnoea can have a negative impact on your everyday life, many people don’t know they have it because the symptoms of sleep apnoea occur when you are sleeping. Certain risk factors, such as being overweight, smoking, and being male can increase the likelihood of you having sleep apnoea, but you need to be diagnosed by a specialist and visit a sleep clinic to be sure.

We share expert advice on how to manage sleep apnoea, helping you spot the symptoms and find the right treatment for you.

What is obstructive sleep apnoea?

Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is the most common type of sleep apnoea. It is a condition that occurs when your breathing is interrupted during sleep (meaning you stop and start breathing at random points for the duration of your sleep). It can occur in men and women of any age but is most common in middle-aged men who are overweight.

The muscles and tissues in your throat relax when you’re sleeping, which causes your airways to narrow. If you have obstructive sleep apnoea, the narrowing of the airways is severe enough to stop your breathing for a short time. This causes you to wake up continuously throughout the night. Because these periods of wakefulness are very brief, it can happen many times without you noticing. Nonetheless it has a significant impact on your sleep quality.

Long-term lack of sleep caused by sleep apnoea can have severe side effects, such as an inability to focus properly, memory problems, and difficulty concentrating.

What are the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnoea?

Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnoea might not be apparent to you but are often noticed by your partner or a family member while you sleep. If you live alone, you might feel tired and frustrated during the day but not understand why. The main symptoms of sleep apnoea include:

  • Snoring and loud, laboured breathing
  • Periods where your breathing stops or is interrupted by gasping
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Being woken up by your own snorting or choking noises
  • Feeling very tired and irritable during the day
  • Having a headache when you wake up
  • Irritability
  • A loss of libido
  • Heartburn

Sleep is very important in protecting your mental and physical health and helping you recover from illness.

How does sleep apnoea affect your life?

Sleep apnoea can have a huge impact on your day-to-day life because it has a significant impact on your sleep. Without the right amount of restorative sleep, you might find yourself tired and irritable throughout the day. Long-term lack of sleep caused by sleep apnoea (and other sleep conditions) can also have more severe side effects, such as an inability to focus properly, memory problems, and difficulty concentrating.

Sleep is very important in protecting your mental and physical health and helping you recover from illness, so it’s vital you speak with a specialist if you think you might be struggling with poor sleeping habits. Getting the right amount of sleep also helps us perform simple everyday tasks we often take for granted (like household chores), hold focused conversations, and function properly more generally.

What are the causes of obstructive sleep apnoea?

As mentioned above, while anyone can get obstructive sleep apnoea, it is more common in men and those aged 40 and above. It is more common in women who have already experienced the menopause (this is usually women over 50). Being overweight or having a large neck increases your likelihood of having obstructive sleep apnoea, and you are also more likely to have obstructive sleep apnoea if the condition is present in your family history. Certain external factors can also increase your susceptibility to obstructive sleep apnoea, including:

  • Drinking alcohol
  • Taking sleeping pills or tranquillisers

Speak with a specialist if you have any of these risk factors and are experiencing symptoms of sleep apnoea.

Diagnosing mild to severe obstructive sleep apnoea

If you think you have obstructive sleep apnoea you should talk to your GP. They will be able to advise you on the best approach and can book you an assessment at a sleep clinic (though you may be able to book into our private clinics directly – give us a call to find out).

There are various online self-assessment tests that can also help determine how much your life is affected by your lack of sleep. If you decide to discuss the matter with your GP, bring the results of the self-assessment with you so they can understand how sleep apnoea affects you.

A sleep clinic is a specialised department dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of various sleep disorders. These clinics are staffed by multidisciplinary healthcare professionals, including sleep specialists, neurologists and psychiatrists, who are trained to assess and manage conditions that affect your sleep.

If you are sent to a sleep clinic they will probably ask you to perform a sleep study. This is usually performed at home with specialist equipment they have given you, but may sometimes be performed at the sleep clinic. There are other options for testing at home including mobile phone apps, however these devices are not as thorough as the tests performed during a sleep study.

Lifestyle modification may help you to manage the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnoea... Cutting down on drinking, stopping smoking, losing weight and good bedtime habits can all make a difference.

Obstructive sleep apnoea treatment

Getting restorative sleep has a number of benefits to your mental and physical health. Although sleep apnoea can cause sleep deprivation and sometimes mental exhaustion, there are many treatment options available.

Lifestyle modification may help you to manage the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnoea before having treatment. Cutting down on drinking, stopping smoking, losing weight and good bedtime habits can all make a difference. You could also try sleeping on your side to minimise the narrowing of your airways.

If these do not work, you may be prescribed a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device. This delivers pressurised air through a mask to prevent your airway from closing.

There are many oral appliances that have been developed over the last few years that can be worn inside your mouth and prevent your jaw from moving backwards and blocking your airways. However, these are generally seen as an alternative for those who cannot use a CPAP device.

Is obstructive sleep apnoea deadly?

It is possible to die from the effects of sleep apnoea, though it is very uncommon. However, the condition can put your life at risk in other ways.

If obstructive sleep apnoea is not treated it can have a significant impact on your life, affecting your physical health, level of stress, relationships, concentration and performance at work. The NHS notes that it may increase your risk of high blood pressure, experiencing a stroke, developing diabetes and encountering heart complications.

In addition, drivers who are tired, including as a result of sleep apnoea are more likely to be involved in a car accident. Therefore, if you are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnoea it may mean your ability to drive is affected and you will have to notify the DVLA.

Get help with Circle Health Group

To learn more about how you can manage sleep apnoea, book an appointment with one of our sleep specialists. We offer specialist testing and bespoke treatment for sleep problems.


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How do I book an appointment?

If you're concerned about symptoms you're experiencing or require further information on this subject, talk to a GP or see an expert consultant at your local Circle Hospital.