Sleep apnea

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What is sleep apnea?


Apnea literally means "no breath" or "stopping breathing".

If you have ‘Obstructive Sleep Apnea’ (OSA), the muscles in your throat relax while you sleep. Your throat closes completely and you temporarily stop breathing. This is called an 'Obstructive Sleep Apnea' or 'OSA'. Other reasons for an obstruction can be a large tongue, obesity or weak muscles in your airway.

When you stop breathing, there is not enough oxygen in your blood, so your brain briefly wakes you up so you can breathe again. This means that throughout the night you keep waking up, possibly 100's of times, causing you to be extremely sleepy.


There are three different types of sleep apnea:

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea, which is mainly due to: menopause, weight gain, asthma, large tongue or tonsils. These increase the likelihood of an obstruction of the airways.

Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)
People with Central Sleep Apnea (CSA) have a disorder with their central nervous system. The breathing centre in the brain fails to trigger breathing or the signal to inhale is not communicated properly to the rest of the body.

Mixed sleep apnea
Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) and Central Sleep Apnea (CSA). While mixed sleep apnea is more common than CSA, it is less typical than OSA.

About 10%

of the adult population in the world is suffering from sleep apnea
About 90% are not diagnosed
Young T, et al. Epidemiology of obstructive sleep apnea: a population health perspective. AJRCCM 2002;165:1217-1239.

"When I realised I was at risk of a heart attack it gave me a kick up the back side.”

Michael Pickersgill, patient

What are the symptoms?  

Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed because the symptoms are either overlooked or confused with other conditions. They include:

Nighttime symptoms


Loud persistent snoring


Silence/Witnessed pauses in breathing and or snoring


Choking or gasping for air during sleep


Restless sleep


Frequent visits to the bathroom


Reduced libido

Daytime symptoms


Still feeling sleepy when waking up


Excessive daytime fatigue or sleepiness


Poor concentration and memory impairment


Lack of energy


Sleepiness during routine activities


Early morning headaches

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What are the risks?

Sleep apnea can have both short and long term health risks if left untreated, including:


  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Heart disease/heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Driving and work-related accidents


Overall sleepiness at the wheel is considered to be responsible for 20 to 25% of traffic accidents on European roads.

Sleepiness at the wheel - White Paper  

Patients with untreated moderate sleep apnea are 3 times greater risk of having a stroke.

Goldstein et al, Guidelines for the Primary Prevention of Stroke. A Guideline for Healthcare Professionals From the American Heart Association/American Stroke, Stroke, Dec 5, 2010.

What is OSA  

This video provides an overview on obstructive sleep apnea.

What does an apnea episode look like?

*Also known in the UK as ‘Apnoea’

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