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How to recognise the signs of sleep apnoea

As the name suggests, sleep apnoea occurs during sleep, and manifests as involuntary pauses in breathing. Older people, people who are overweight or people who snore regularly or intensely are the most susceptible to sleep apnoea. The pauses in breathing last between 10 and 30 seconds and occur several times a night. When frequency starts to reach 5 to 30 pauses per hour, sleep apnoea can lead to serious health complications. So what are the symptoms of sleep apnoea, and what are the associated risks? 

1) Different types of sleep apnoea

In most cases, sleep apnoea is due to a relaxing of the tongue and the throat muscles, which blocks the airways during breathing. The respiratory passages are obstructed, which is why we talk about “obstructive sleep apnoea“. This type of apnoea affects mainly older people and people who are obese.

In more rare cases, sleep apnoea can be caused by a dysfunction in the brain, which stops instructing the body to breathe. This is referred to as central sleep apnoea. This form of apnoea occurs mainly in people affected by heart disease, neurological problems or who have had a stroke. The use of sleeping pills, narcotics or alcohol is also a risk factor.

Finally, some people present with mixed sleep apnoea, which alternates between obstructive and central apnoea.

2) The symptoms of sleep apnoea

People who suffer from sleep apnoea generally don’t notice that they are experiencing pauses in breathing during the night, unless they notice the first symptoms:

  • significant fatigue throughout the day, from the moment of waking up
  • drowsiness and falling asleep frequently and involuntarily
  • significant snoring
  • headaches upon waking
  • irritability
  • memory problems 
  • a choking/suffocating sensation during the night

Consult a doctor if:

  • your snoring is very loud and disturbs your partner’s sleep
  • you wake up during the night feeling like you are having trouble breathing
  • if you need to go to the toilet several times a night
  • if your partner notices that you stop breathing during your sleep
  • you feel fatigued from the minute you get up in the morning and you frequently fall asleep during the day.

If you are in any doubt, complete the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, which  will allow you to measure your level of day time drowsiness.

If your doctor confirms your suspicions in relation to sleep apnoea, they will direct you to a specialised sleep centre to carry out a sleep study (a polysomnography). This test will look at the different phases of your sleep, so as to detect the sleep apnoea and determine how pronounced it is. You may need to spend a night in hospital or in a special centre in order to undergo this thorough examination.

3) The complications linked to sleep apnoea

In the long term, sleep apnoea can have quite serious health consequences if it is not monitored and if it goes untreated: 

  • Cardiovascular diseases: each pause in breathing leads to a lack of oxygen supply to the brain and every sudden awakening increases heart rate and blood pressure. In the long term, sleep apnoea can cause cardiovascular disease, and the risk of sudden death during sleep is increased.
  • Depression: lack of sleep and fatigue can lead to depression. A recent study showed a link between sleep apnoea and cognitive difficulties in older women.
  • Accidents: lack of sleep caused by sleep apnoea increases the risk of accidents, especially work related or road accidents. People with obstructive sleep apnoea are two to seven times more likely to have a traffic accident.
  • Surgical complications: particularly when it is not yet diagnosed, sleep apnoea can be a risk factor during general anaesthetic, because anaesthetics can cause the muscles of the throat to relax even further, and can aggravate sleep apneoa. Inform your surgeon if you suffer from sleep apnoea.

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