What is Obstructive Sleep Apnoea?

In Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA), the muscles at the back of the throat relax during sleep so that part of the airway is closed off. This causes you to stop breathing, then partially wake before starting to breathe again. This cycle can occur hundreds of times during sleep, reducing the quality and benefits of a good night’s sleep.

People with OSA experience snoring, daytime sleepiness, altered mood and morning headaches, which can result in poor work performance, and work and motor vehicle accidents. There is also an increased risk of cardiovascular conditions such as hypertension (high blood pressure), vascular diseases and arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat).

For children, untreated OSA can affect cardiovascular health, and impair their development, behaviour and learning. OSA is considered a contributor to overall health loss and a risk factor for other life-limiting conditions like coronary heart disease, ischaemic stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Who gets OSA?

OSA can occur at any age, and is more common if a person is overweight, sleeps on their back, uses alcohol or sleeping tablets prior to going to sleep, or has nasal obstruction or a narrow upper airway (e.g. enlarged tonsils or differences in face or jaw shape).

In New Zealand, OSA is estimated to affect 3−5% of children and is one of the most common respiratory disorders of childhood. A minimum of 4% of adult males and 2% of adult females experience OSA, though most cases are undiagnosed.

OSA rates are higher among Māori and Pacific people: OSA is twice as common in Māori males compared to non-Māori males. Māori and Pacific people tend to have more severe OSA and more comorbidities.

What treatment is available?

In children, OSA can be treated effectively with an operation to remove the adenoids and tonsils, and in adults mild OSA can often be managed with lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise.

People with moderate to severe disease will usually need treatment with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device. CPAP provides air pressure through a mask, which is worn during sleep. This works well in 70% of cases, so it is important that other treatment options are available for those who can’t use CPAP.

Maintaining a healthy weight is especially important for OSA, as obesity can have serious effects on the lungs and breathing. New Zealand is now the fourth most obese country in the OECD, so for the good of our respiratory health we need to improve our eating and exercise habits.

What if I need more support?

A physiotherapist can teach techniques to control breathing patterns and avoid breathlessness. They can also help improve your fitness and endurance, and boost your immunity levels. Visit physiotherapy.org.nz to find a local physiotherapist.

A dietitian can provide education about the best foods to eat for people with a respiratory illness, based upon their medical condition and individual needs. Visit the New Zealand Dietetic Association (NZDA)’s website dietitians.org.nz to locate a dietitian in your area.

Want to know more?

For more information and resources about Obstructive Sleep Apnoea, visit asthmafoundation.org.nz/your-health/ obstructive-sleep-apnoea

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