What is obstructive sleep apnoea?

Obstructive sleep apnoea is a breathing problem that occurs when the throat muscles relax and collapse during sleep causing a partial or total blockage of the airway for a short time.

Obstructive sleep apnoea is more common in:

  • middle-aged men
  • men and women of any age who are overweight or obese
  • men whose neck circumference is above 17 inches

There are some recognised features associated with an increased risk of OSA, which include one or a combination of:

  • enlarged tonsils
  • a small lower jaw
  • underactive thyroid disease
  • Type 2 diabetes

People with obstructive sleep apnoea experience a dip in their oxygen levels caused by relaxation of the throat muscles and  narrowing of the airway in their throat. Low oxygen levels are detected by the brain which then sends messages (micro-awakenings) to instruct the throat muscles to contract which opens the upper airway; oxygen levels then rise back to normal levels.  Once the person returns to sleep, the whole process repeats itself many times over during the night. This results in a disrupted brain sleep pattern.

If you have obstructive sleep apnoea you may notice increased daytime sleepiness and your doctor might assess your sleepiness using the Epworth Sleepiness Scale. Partners or family members may notice loud snoring, noisy and laboured breathing, and breath holding during sleep.

If you think you might have obstructive sleep apnoea, see your GP who can review and check for other possible reasons for your symptoms and arrange further assessment if needed.

Healthy lifestyle changes including losing weight if you are overweight or obese and limiting your alcohol consumption can all help improve the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnoea.

If you need an assessment of your sleep carried out, the doctor will refer you to sleep services in NHS Lothian.