Understanding Sleep Apnea: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Understanding Sleep Apnea: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Understanding Sleep Apnea: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments
Posted on 27 September, 2023

Sleep apnea is a prevalent yet often underestimated sleep disorder that can have a profound impact on your overall health and quality of life. At AA ENT in Cardiff, South Wales, we're here to shed light on this condition. In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore the causes, symptoms, and various treatments available for sleep apnea.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a complex sleep disorder that profoundly affects individuals during their restorative slumber. It is characterised by repetitive interruptions in breathing, known as apneas, occurring while a person is asleep. These interruptions can be brief but frequent, leading to a significant reduction in the flow of oxygen to the brain and other vital organs. If left untreated, sleep apnea can have far-reaching health implications.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are primarily three distinct types of sleep apnea, each with its own unique set of underlying causes and discernible symptoms:

  1. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)
    Causes:OSA ensues when the muscles located at the back of the throat relax excessively during sleep, causing a partial or complete blockage of the airway.
    Symptoms: Common symptoms associated with OSA include loud and persistent snoring, choking or gasping for breath during sleep, excessive daytime sleepiness, and difficulty concentrating during waking hours.
  2. Central Sleep Apnea
    Causes:Central sleep apnea often arises from an underlying imbalance in the brain's respiratory control centre, resulting in an interruption of signals sent to the muscles that regulate breathing.
    Symptoms: Key indicators of central sleep apnea include difficulty falling asleep, frequent nighttime awakenings, and experiencing shortness of breath upon awakening.
  3. Complex or Mixed Sleep Apnea
    Causes:This type, as the name suggests, is a combination of both obstructive and central sleep apnea, presenting a more intricate set of challenges.
    Symptoms: The symptoms of complex or mixed sleep apnea may encompass those of both OSA and central sleep apnea, making it a multifaceted condition.

Risk Factors for Sleep Apnea

Several factors can increase an individual's risk of developing sleep apnea, and understanding these risk factors is crucial.

  • Excess Weight: Obesity or being overweight is a significant risk factor for sleep apnea. Excess fat deposits in the upper airway can obstruct breathing.
  • Neck Circumference: Individuals with a thicker neck may have a narrower airway, making them more susceptible to OSA.
  • Family History: Genetics may play a role in the development of sleep apnea, as family history can increase the likelihood of inheriting this condition.
  • Age: Sleep apnea is more commonly observed in adults, particularly those over the age of 60.
  • Gender: Men are statistically more likely to experience sleep apnea than women.
  • Use of Alcohol, Sedatives, or Tranquillizers: The consumption of these substances can relax the throat muscles, potentially worsening the condition.
  • Smoking: Smokers are at a higher risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea, as smoking can lead to inflammation and fluid retention in the upper airway.

Recognising the Symptoms

Recognising the symptoms of sleep apnea is vital, as the condition can be subtle and often goes undiagnosed. Being vigilant and observant of common indicators is essential.

  • Loud and Persistent Snoring: Loud and persistent snoring is a hallmark symptom of obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Pauses in Breathing During Sleep: These pauses are often witnessed by a bed partner and can be accompanied by choking or gasping for air.
  • Excessive Daytime Sleepiness: Even after a full night's rest, individuals with sleep apnea may experience profound daytime sleepiness, which can lead to difficulties in concentration and irritability.
  • Morning Headaches: Waking up with headaches is a potential symptom, as is experiencing a dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening.

The Consequences of Untreated Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea should not be underestimated, as untreated cases can lead to a range of serious health problems, including:

  • High Blood Pressure: Sleep apnea is closely linked to hypertension (high blood pressure).
  • Heart Problems: Untreated sleep apnea can increase the risk of heart disease, including arrhythmias and congestive heart failure.
  • Stroke: Individuals with sleep apnea have a higher risk of stroke.
  • Type 2 Diabetes: Sleep apnea is associated with insulin resistance and an increased likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • Depression: The condition can contribute to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
  • Worsening of ADHD: Sleep apnea can exacerbate symptoms in individuals with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Daytime Fatigue Leading to Accidents: Excessive daytime sleepiness can lead to accidents, both on the road and at work.

Diagnostic Procedures

If you suspect that you or someone you know has sleep apnea or is displaying symptoms, it is essential to seek a proper diagnosis. Diagnostic procedures may include:

  • Sleep Study (Polysomnography): This comprehensive sleep study monitors various body functions during sleep, including brain activity, eye movement, heart rate, and the flow of air in and out of your lungs. It is the gold standard for diagnosing sleep apnea.

Treatment Options

Fortunately, there are effective treatments available for sleep apnea that can significantly enhance one's quality of life. The choice of treatment depends on the type and severity of the condition.

Lifestyle Modifications

  • Weight Loss: Shedding excess weight can substantially reduce the severity of obstructive sleep apnea, particularly in overweight individuals.
  • Positional Therapy: Sleeping on one's side can help prevent airway blockage in some cases.
  • Avoiding Alcohol and Sedatives: Steering clear of alcohol, sedatives, and tranquillizers can prevent the relaxation of throat muscles that can worsen sleep apnea.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)

  • CPAP Therapy: A CPAP machine delivers a continuous stream of air pressure to your airway, keeping it open during sleep. This therapy is highly effective in treating obstructive sleep apnea.

Oral Appliances

  • Dental Devices: Custom-fitted dental devices can help keep the airway open. They are particularly useful for mild to moderate cases of OSA.


  • Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP): This surgical procedure involves removing excess tissue from the throat to widen the airway.
  • Genioglossus Advancement (GA): Repositioning the tongue attachment can prevent airway collapse.
  • Inspire Therapy: This innovative treatment involves surgically implanting a device to stimulate the hypoglossal nerve, which controls tongue movement. It is designed for patients with moderate to severe OSA who have not responded to other treatments.

If you suspect you have sleep apnea or have been diagnosed and are seeking treatment options, we invite you to reach out to AA ENT. Professor Ali Al-Hussaini, our consultant ENT and facial plastic surgeon, can provide expert guidance and care tailored to your specific needs. Don't hesitate to contact us at 07557-342128 or via email at [email protected]. Quality sleep is essential for your well-being, and we're here to help you achieve it.

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