Sleep apnoea is one of the most common medical disorders facing Australians today. While anyone can have the condition, it’s roughly three times more common in men over 30 years of age than in women, with about 1 in 4 males suffering from some degree of sleep apnoea.1 But despite its prevalence, and the many dangers associated with sleep apnoea, the majority of people suffering from the condition go undiagnosed and don’t know they have it. 

Today, we’ll be exploring the dangers of untreated sleep apnoea, as well as how you can manage the condition to enjoy better, healthier, and safer sleep. 

What is Sleep Apnoea?

Sleep apnoea is a disorder that causes difficulty breathing during sleep, resulting in pauses in breathing that last over 10 seconds. 

When oxygen levels drop, the brain sends a signal to lighten the sleep.. While sufferers are largely unaware of these events, they can happen as many as thirty times an hour, and often much more, seriously disrupting the sleep cycle and – in more severe cases – reducing life expectancy.

There are three recognised types of sleep apnoea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA): The most common type of sleep apnoea where the sides of the throat collapse and block the airway.
  • Central sleep apnoea (CSA): A less common type of sleep apnoea where the brain fails to send the right messages to the muscles that control breathing.
  • Complex sleep apnoea: A combination of OSA and CSA.

Health Risks Associated with Long-Term, Untreated Sleep Apnoea

Many people suffering from sleep apnoea don’t even know it. Some symptoms to look out for include:

  • Snoring
  • Feeling unrefreshed after sleep 
  • Sleepiness during the day
  • Irritability and trouble focusing
  • Tossing and turning during the night
  • Waking up with a dry mouth or a headache

So what happens if you leave sleep apnoea untreated? This really depends on the severity of the condition. Mild sleep apnoea often impacts quality of life and causes fatigue and drowsiness, as well as affecting memnory, concentration and mood. Moderate to severe cases can lead to much more serious health complications, and may even have life-threatening consequences.2

High Blood Pressure and Heart Problems

Sleep apnoea can increase your risk of high blood pressure (hypertension).3 The sudden drop in blood oxygen levels increases blood pressure and places a lot of strain on the cardiovascular system, raising your risk of heart disease, recurrent heart attacks, and cardiac arrhythmias.4 

Repeated episodes of low blood oxygen can also result in sudden death due to an irregular heartbeat. 

Stroke

Sleep apnoea is a common, yet often overlooked risk factor for strokes. Not only can the early diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnoea help prevent a stroke, it can also improve the chances of recovering from one and reduce the risk of recurrence.5

Dementia

A study conducted by Monash University found that severe OSA is linked to an increase in beta-amyloid. This is a protein that builds up on the walls of the arteries in the brain, raising the risk of dementia.6

The study also recorded poorer sleep efficiency, and less time in stage N3 sleep, which is the vital, regenerative period of sleep in which the body repairs itself. 

Type 2 Diabetes

Potentially altering glucose metabolism and promoting insulin resistance, sleep apnoea can increase both the risk and severity of type 2 diabetes. For OSA-sufferers with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, CPAP or oral appliance therapy may improve glycemic control and reduce insulin resistance.7

Liver Complications

If you’re suffering from OSA, you may be at an increased risk of elevated liver enzymes, as well as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease which can cause the liver to swell and become damaged.8 

How to Treat Sleep Apnoea

There are various treatment options available to people suffering from sleep apnoea, though a good place to start is in identifying lifestyle factors that may be exacerbating the condition. 

Here are some simple changes you can make at home: 

  • Lose weight and exercise regularly
  • Drink less alcohol and avoid drinking in the hours leading up to bedtime
  • Quit smoking
  • Stop sleeping on your back
  • Use nasal decongestants or allergy medications to open up your nasal airways as required
  • Avoid medications with sedative effects such as sleeping pills

In most cases, lifestyle changes are not enough, so you may need to pursue treatment, such as oral appliances, CPAP, or even sometimes surgery to help manage the condition. 

Oral Appliances

Oral appliances – sometimes also known as sleep apnoea mouth guards – help overcome physical blockages in the upper airway. These custom-made appliances gently hold the jaw slightly forward to prevent the tongue and tissues at the back of the throat from collapsing into the airways. 

They are a proven, effective treatment even for  severe sleep apnoea and for people who struggle to use a CPAP machine for all of the night.

CPAP Machine

CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) therapy is a common treatment for OSA. It utilises a CPAP machine which provides a steady source of air pressure through a mask or nose piece to keep your airways open as you sleep. 

Surgery

In adults, surgery for OSA is often considered a last resort in the rare instances when all other treatments fail. 

Surgery can be performed to stabilise the airway so it won’t narrow or collapse during sleep. While surgery shouldn’t be considered a ‘cure’, it can help reduce the symptoms of OSA and can be used in conjunction with other treatments  to improve the outcome. 

Surgery can very occasionally be performed on the nose to increase the efficacy of CPAP machines and oral appliances. 

Looking for a Sleep Apnoea Solution?

Depending on the severity of the condition, sleep apnoea can cause anything from tiredness and irritability through to serious health issues. Yet many people don’t even realise they have a problem. 

A sleep apnoea test can help you identify the condition before it becomes a serious threat to your health. If you’re found to be suffering from sleep apnoea, don’t panic. There are many effective and affordable options for overcoming your condition. Our oral appliances, for example, are expertly tailored to your needs and all come backed by a three-month satisfaction guarantee

Want to book an appointment or learn more about the dangers of sleep apnoea and how you can manage it? Contact us today to speak to an expert at SleepWise clinic.

References

  1. Better Health Channel, Sleep Apnoea
  2. AIHW, 2021, Sleep-Related Breathing Disorders with a Focus on Obstructive Sleep Apnoea,
  3. Sleep Foundation, 2022, How Sleep Apnea Affects Blood Pressure
  4. Noda A, Miyata S, Yasuda Y, 2013, Therapeutic Strategies for Sleep Apnea in Hypertension and Heart Failure
  5. Davis AP, Billings ME, Longstreth WT Jr, Khot SP, June 2013, Early Diagnosis and Treatment of Obstructive Sleep Apnea After Stroke
  6. Jackson ML, Cavuoto M, Schembri R, Doré V, Villemagne VL, Barnes M, O’Donoghue FJ, Rowe CC, Robinson SR, 2020, Severe Obstructive Sleep Apnea Is Associated with Higher Brain Amyloid Burden: A Preliminary PET Imaging Study,
  7. Doumit J, Prasad B, 2016, Sleep Apnea in Type 2 Diabetes, ‘Diabetes Spectrum’, volume 29, issue 1, pages 14-19  
  8. Jawa HA, Khatib H, Alzahrani N, Alawi A, Al-Gamdi M, Abuljadayel A, Altayyari S, Alhejaili F, Mosli M, Wali SO, 2021, Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease and Fibrosis Risk in Patients With Obstructive Sleep Apnea: A Retrospective Analysis, ‘Cureus’, 
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