Science Questions

Sat, 16th Oct 2004

Part of the show Dreams, Sleep, and The Body Clock

Question

Wendy asked:

What causes sleep apnoea?

Answer

You are lucky to have had it diagnosed because lots of people with it and are undiagnosed. People who have apnoea stop breathing, maybe hundreds of times a night, which means that your brain is regularly starved of oxygen producing symptoms of tiredness, poor concetration and irritability the next day. There is a way of treating this and that is to wear a mask which pushes air down into the lungs under pressure - maybe your doctors have told you about this - but you'd need to use this every night for life. There are two possibilities for what causes sleep apnoea: central apnoea is where the bit of the brain which tells you to breathe whilst you're asleep switches off - but this is rare. More common are problems in the throat so when you fall asleep your muscle tone goes away and your throat collapses, obstructing the airway. This is why pushing air down with a mask can help. People who have this can have surgery to correct it, but the surgery is fairly major.

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