Sleep apnoea is a serious disorder which stops your breathing every few seconds during sleep. Sleep apnoea is also associated with medical conditions such as high blood pressure and arrhythmia, and increases risks of strokes, heart attacks and heart failure. So, without seeking medical advice and taking action to treat it, sleep apnoea can, in the long-term, be life-threatening.
In the short-term, it is also deeply unpleasant. I was diagnosed with sleep apnoea 25 years ago and, despite going to bed early each night, I was constantly exhausted, suffered from ill-health, and was even diagnosed with depression.
I’ve since used a number of methods to alleviate the symptoms and help myself to get a good night’s sleep. I’ll run through some of the benefits and drawbacks to each in a moment. Firstly though, I think it’s important to understand how widespread sleep apnoea is.
Sleep apnoea in the UK and beyond
Sleep apnoea is estimated to affect 3-6 per cent of the world’s adult population, and as many as 100 million people in Europe and the U.S. alone. This number is growing.
The number of tests carried out by the NHS England to diagnose people with sleep apnoea has doubled in the past decade. NHS Digital data also shows that the number of hospital admissions of children and teenagers with a primary diagnosis of sleep apnoea has shot up over the past four years.
According to doctors and charities, the rise of sleep apnoea is in part due to increased awareness, which is prompting those with a suspected sleep disorder to seek diagnosis. An increase of obesity is also thought to be contributing to the rise in sleep apnoea amongst young people.
Chris Rogers, the managing secretary of the Sleep Apnoea Trust, told the Guardian that sleep apnoea was growing among all ages, and is a bigger issue than reflected in ‘out of date’ NHS statistics. ‘The current estimate that there are 1.5 million who have sleep apnoea is inadequate – the figure now is more like 3.9 million’, he said.
There is good news though. As the syndrome becomes more widely known and understood, more and more solutions will arise.
And, there are already a number of ways to tackle it:
Surgery for sleep apnoea
If you’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnoea, then your doctor will have surely told you the cause. If you haven’t yet been diagnosed, please see your doctor as a soon as possible – the problem may be overcome through surgery.
A deviated septum – an uneven divide between your nasal cavities – or having excess tissue on the back of your nose or throat can block your airways and cause sleep apnoea, for instance.
Similar problems can result from the size of tonsils and glands which can be removed to cure or diminish sleep apnoea.
However, surgery should be a last resort when no other alternatives have worked.
CPAP devices for sleep apnoea
Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) devices apply constant pressure on your airways, keeping them open and helping you to breathe during sleep. CPAPs are the most popular of assistive breathing devices and are pretty essential for most sleep apnoea patients.
When I first used a CPAP device, it really helped to transform my life, allowing me to finally get a decent night’s sleep. I did, however, find a few downsides.
CPAPs are bulky, noisy, tabletop devices that require a plug connection and come with a long tube, making them unsuitable for travelling. In short, they are pretty outdated for the modern world.
These flaws led me to develop Airmony – a smaller, lighter, quieter CPAP and the first of its kind to be tubeless. It also uses sensors and e-health tech to let the user and their doctor monitor their sleeping patterns.
Other assistive breathing devices for sleep apnoea
Expiratory positive airway pressure (EPAP) devices are a lot more discreet than traditional CPAP devices. These single-use, disposable devices attach to your nostrils to keep your airways open but are ineffective for even moderate cases of sleep apnoea.
Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP) devices are like CPAPs, but more suited for people who need high pressure to support their breathing. BiPAPs have two pressure settings: both for inhaling and exhaling.
Adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV) devices are a bit more intuitive – they record data on your normal breathing patterns and using an algorithm to regulate your breathing during sleep.
Other devices for sleep apnoea
Wearing a mandibular advancement/repositioning device – essentially a gum shield – during sleep will hold your jaw and tongue forward, increasing the space at the back of your throat and allow for better breathing. A similar result can be achieved with tongue retainer, but such devices are not effective treatments for moderate-to-severe cases of sleep apnoea.
Wearing these devices can also be sore and uncomfortable and, in the long-term, can permanently shift the position of your jaw.
In the U.S., a pacemaker system that stimulates muscles to keep airways open during sleep has been developed. This could provide an interesting new solution to alleviating sleep apnoea, but it is suitable only for mild cases of sleep apnoea, and it will likely be some time before it is available in the UK.
Lifestyle changes for sleep apnoea
Sleep apnoea is exacerbated by many factors associated with an unhealthy lifestyle. Even if changing your lifestyle doesn’t cure your sleep apnoea, it can certainly make it a lot more bearable.
Smoking is bad for circulation and for breathing in general. Add the fact that nicotine is a stimulant and you can see why it doesn’t promote good sleep.
Drinking is also known to disrupt sleeping patterns. And as it relaxes your muscles, drinking in the evening is not a great idea for those with sleep apnoea – sufferers already struggle with their throat muscles relaxing and obstructing our breathing! The same is true of sleeping tablets and sedatives.
Obesity can also exacerbate sleep apnoea. So, reaching a healthy weight can lead to remarkable improvements – the most obvious route to this is more exercise – yoga in particular – which, in itself, promotes sleep and muscle flexibility, and improves circulation.
Lastly, avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and bright screens and heavy meals in the evening will all help to improve sleep.
If you think you, or someone you know may have sleep apnoea, but are yet to seek diagnosis, please make sure you see a doctor as soon as you can. It’s important to know not only whether you have sleep apnoea, but also how severe your breathing difficulties are and what may be causing them.
Receiving treatment and advice can really transform your life. So, with raised awareness and the right devices and treatments available, I’m sure that everyone with sleep apnoea will be able to have a good night’s sleep, every night.
About the Author
Jaume Palau is an Electronics Engineer and a developer of devices for biotech research labs. A long-time sleep apnoea sufferer, Palau found existing sleep apnoea devices to be oversized, outdated and unsuitable for travel.
Airmony is a next generation sleep apnoea device. Portable, light and tubeless, Airmony pushes a continuous flow of air to help sleep apnoea patients breathe during sleep. It includes sensors for e-health tech, allowing patients and their doctors to monitor sleep patterns.
Palau invented Airmony so that he, and the millions of sleep apnoea sufferers around the world, would be able to enjoy a good night’s sleep.
The device’s development was supported by renowned sleep specialist, Dr Eduard Estivill – now Airmony’s Medical Advisor – who founded the Estivill Sleep Clinic almost 30 years ago. Estivill has had more than 200 papers published in scientific journals and millions of his books have been sold.