Obstructive sleep apnoea

Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) momentarily stops you breathing when you’re sleeping, disrupting your sleep and affecting your daily life.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2023

What is obstructive sleep apnoea?

OSA happens when your throat closes partially (hypopnoea) or completely (apnoea) during sleep, obstructing your airways for about 10 seconds. This sudden interruption to your breathing subconsciously rouses you from deep sleep or, very briefly, wakes you up. As sleep apnoea usually happens repeatedly, OSA can lead to poor quality sleep.

OSA is a long-term (chronic) sleep disorder which affects twice as many men as women. It can develop at any age, but it’s more common if you’re over the age of 40.

As disturbed sleep can make you very tired during the day, sleep apnoea can affect daily life and activities such as your ability to drive. If you suffer from sleep apnoea, you’re 12 times more likely to be involved in a car accident.

OSA can usually be treated with simple lifestyle changes or by using sleeping aids, such as a CPAP machine or a mandibular advancement device.

How to tell if you have obstructive sleep apnoea

Common night-time symptoms of OSA are:

  • Snoring
  • Loud, laboured breathing when sleeping, interrupted by gasps, snorts or choking noises
  • Restlessness when sleeping, often accompanied by sudden jerking movements
  • Increased need to urinate

If you have a partner, they’ll possibly be more aware of your sleep apnoea symptoms than you are. They may also be affected by your OSA and suffer from disturbed sleep or insomnia as a result.

During the day, you may be excessively tired, have mood swings and also problems remembering and concentrating.

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Book an appointment

Diagnosis and tests for obstructive sleep apnoea

If you suspect you have OSA, make an appointment to see your GP. Sleep apnoea can be a symptom of several serious health conditions, and can also increase your risk of:

Your GP will discuss your symptoms and how they’re affecting you.

Your GP may refer you to a consultant at a sleep clinic for assessment, diagnosis and treatment. At the sleep clinic, you’ll be asked about your sleeping habits and sleep apnoea symptoms and undergo a detailed assessment. This may include a sleep apnoea test to monitor your sleeping and breathing patterns, which can be carried out in your own home or during an overnight hospital stay.

Causes of obstructive sleep apnoea

Factors which increase the risk of OSA include:

  • Being overweight – especially if your neck is wider than 17 inches/43cm
  • Smoking
  • Taking certain medications, including sleeping tablets and tranquilisers
  • Nasal congestion such as nasal polyps (growths in your nose) or a deviated septum (the tissue which divides your nostrils)
  • Drinking alcohol
  • A family history of sleep apnoea

Common treatments for obstructive sleep apnoea

Lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of developing OSA and can also relieve sleep apnoea symptoms. Try:

  • Losing any excess weight
  • Cutting down on alcohol and, if you’re a smoker, stop
  • Sleeping on your side

If your OSA symptoms are having a serious impact on your life, your doctor may recommend:

  • A continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP machine) – a device with a mask attached which pumps air into your airways as you sleep
  • A mandibular advancement device (MAD) – a simple device you place over your teeth at night, bringing your lower jaw forward and keeping your airways open
  • Surgery – this is rarely recommended unless there’s a physical reason for your OAS, such as large tonsils or a deviated septum. If you need to lose a lot of weight, your GP may consider whether obesity surgery, such as a gastric sleeve, might help