The long-term effects of sleep apnoea  

09 May 2024

Justin Smith considers the treatment options.

Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is a common condition. It’s estimated to affect around 1.5m adults in the UK. However, up to 85 per cent are undiagnosed and untreated. This is because symptoms can be difficult to notice, as they mainly happen during sleep. The condition causes the airway to narrow while asleep, stopping patients from breathing properly. Symptoms include interrupted breathing, gasping, snorting, choking, sleep disruption, and loud snoring.

During the day, patients may notice that they feel tired, have trouble concentrating, have mood swings, and have headaches when they wake up. It’s important that patients with OSA receive a diagnosis and treat their condition, as it can affect their health in the long term.

What are the health implications?

If OSA is not treated, it can lead to other problems – some of which can have long-term effects on an individual’s health. These include high blood pressure, increased risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes, and depression. Additionally, because OSA disrupts sleep, patients often experience tiredness. In turn, this can lead to an increased risk of having a serious accident, like a car accident, for example – as well as difficulty concentrating at work or school. Sleepless nights can also put a strain on relationships, causing difficulty.

In addition to these, sleep apnoea can affect the digestive system, leading to fatty liver disease and worsening gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The nervous system can be impacted, sometimes leading to numbness and tingling sensations. In men, OSA can also contribute to infertility.

Because sleep apnoea can impact so many areas of the body and have an effect on long-term health, it’s important to treat it effectively.

How can we treat it?

Sleep apnoea can have many potential causes, so there are various ways dental and medical professionals can treat it. OSA has been linked to obesity, having a large neck, age, genetics, smoking and drinking alcohol, having large tonsils, sleeping position, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

In some cases, lifestyle changes can make huge improvements to OSA symptoms. As such, for patients with mild sleep apnoea, clinicians might recommend losing weight, regular exercise (this can help improve sleep for many people), creating good sleep habits and a regular sleep schedule, and sleeping on their side – some patients find it helpful to use a bed wedge or pillow to help stay on their side during the night.

While the above may be helpful for some patients, many are recommended a CPAP machine to treat OSA. It pumps air into a mask worn over the mouth and/or nose to improve breathing and prevents the airway from narrowing. For many who use the machine consistently, this means that they feel less tired during the day and have a reduced risk of additional health problems, such as high blood pressure.

The problem with CPAP

Some patients are unable to tolerate treatment using a CPAP machine. This is the most common treatment for OSA, especially in moderate and severe cases. When used consistently, CPAP is effective, restoring patients’ quality of life. However, research suggests that about 50 per cent of CPAP patients do not use the machine consistently, or discontinue their treatment. Whilst every patient is different, commonly patients cannot tolerate CPAP as it is uncomfortable, irritating, noisy, and it causes dry mouth. Additionally, some patients remove the mask while they’re asleep, find that their breathing is out of sync, or are intolerant to the air pressure.

O2Vent is an effective alternative treatment for OSA patients. The device is customised to fit each patient, which helps to treat the condition comfortably and discreetly. When the airway becomes blocked, the device draws in air through the device, allowing it to reach the back of the throat. O2Vent also stabilises the lower jaw, brings the tongue forward, and encourages the airway to open. Because of this, the device is an effective treatment option for OSA.

The ability to provide patients with a comfortable treatment option for their obstructive sleep apnoea is essential for long-term compliance. When clinicians are able to consistently treat OSA, patients can expect long-lasting health benefits and a lower risk of future issues.