SLEEP APNEA: a severe case of snoring or a sign of something more serious?

Snoring is a very common problem that has gradually become a socially accepted nuisance,  forged by the general assumption  that “well, everyone snores occasionally”. It is a nuisance capable of affecting the quality of life of the sufferer and also the people around them. But what we often readily dismiss as a bad case of snoring, could indicate the presence of a more serious and potentially dangerous medical condition known as obstructive sleep apnea.

What is Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) Sleep apnea is a condition characterised by loud, strenous snoring and several periods where breathing stops and starts repeatedly during sleep. The condition can result in frequent periods of decreased oxygen levels in the body. During an episode, the lack of oxygen triggers your brain to pull you out of deep sleep – either to a lighter sleep or to wakefulness, this is to enable you reopen your airways and breathe normally. You’ll usually have no memory of your interrupted breathing, so you may be unaware you have a problem.

Complications of Sleep Apnea

If OSA is left untreated, it can have a significant impact on your quality of life, causing problems such as poor performance at work and school, and placing a strain on your relationships with others. Poorly controlled OSA may also increase your chances of:

  • developing high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • having a stroke or heart attack
  • developing an irregular heartbeat – such as atrial fibrillation


Causes of Sleep Apnea?

  • Overweight/ Obesity – excessive body fat largely increases the bulk of soft tissue in the neck, which can place a strain on the throat muscles. Also, excessive abdominal fat could result in breathing difficulties which potentially worsens sleep apnoe.
  • Gender – OSA has been observed to occur more in men than in women, however the reasons for this are not fully understood.
  • Age: Sleep apnea is more common in indiviuals who are above 40 years of age, although it can occur at any age.
  • Neck Size – Studies show that men with a collar size greater than around 43cm (17 inches) are at a higher risk of developing OSA.
  • Alcohol – drinking alcohol, particularly before going to sleep, can make snoring and sleep apnoea worse
  • Smoking – Individuals who smoke are more likely to develop sleep apnoea.
  • the menopause (in women) – hormone changes during menopause may induce a relaxing effect on the throat muscles
  • Family history
  • Nasal congestion

How do I know I have it ? (Symptoms of Sleep Apnea)

The symptoms of sleep apnea are often mistaken for a common case of terrible snoring, and are most often first reported by a partner, friend or family member who observe these abnormalities while you sleep. Hence, the primary symptoms are noisy and laboured breathing and associated short periods where normal breathing is interrupted by gasping or snorting and sudden wakefullness and inability to return to sleep. The image below shows other symptoms experienced by people who suffer from sleep apnea.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

Diagnosis & Treatment of Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is confirmed using a polysomnogram test, also called a sleep study (See image below). This a test that can be carried out either in a clinic or at home. It involves the use of several elctrodes to record your brain activity, the oxygen level in your blood, heart rate and breathing, as well as eye and leg movements.

Polysomnogram (Sleep study)

Treatment Options

  • Lifestyle changes : Lose weight, stop smoking, reduce alcohol consumption
  • CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine: This is a small pump that delivers a continuous supply of compressed air via a mask (that either covers your nose or your nose and mouth). The compressed air prevents your throat closing (See image below).
  • More serious cases may require surgical intervention, this is a more permanent solution to sleep apnoea.
Image credit:Chona Duroga

If you think you or someone you know might be suffering from sleep apnea, please make an appointment to discuss with your doctor or healthcare professional. Get tested and get treated.

Please Click the link below for a video on sleep apnea

Video on Sleep Apnea

Juliet Egbule

Clinical Cardiac Physiologist / C0 – Founder @ TheHeartEngine


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