Sleep apnoea is when your breathing happens in fits and starts while sleeping. It occurs when there is a physical blockage in the upper airway. When the airway closes, the person will stop breathing. This will happen only temporarily, but repeatedly during a person’s sleep.
The most common form of sleep apnoea is called obstructive sleep apnoea or OSA. According to the British Lung Foundation, OSA affects about 1.5 million adults all over the UK. OSA occurs when muscles in your throat temporarily relax, closing airways and momentarily cutting off breathing. Around 45% of the 1.5 million people estimated to be living with OSA in the UK have moderate (where a person may not even notice they’re having difficulty breathing when sleep) to severe (breathing stopping and restarting more than 30 times in one hour) forms of the disorder.
The most common symptoms of sleep apnoea are loud snoring, gasping/snorting/choking noises, and interrupted sleep. During the daytime, people suffering from sleep apnoea may also experience headaches upon waking up, mood swings, and fatigue due to the poor quality of their sleep.
Given its symptoms, sleep apnoea affects not only the person living with it but also their family and friends. The person’s partner, family, or friends will have to help them through many sleepless nights, their mood swings, anxiety over their condition, and so much more.
Knowing how to support someone living with sleep apnoea is important not only for the person afflicted with the condition but for the people supporting them as well. Below are the best ways to support someone struggling with sleep apnoea.
Don’t dismiss the symptoms
The most commonly associated symptom of sleep apnoea is snoring. Snoring in itself is not a serious problem which can cause some people to dismiss it as merely a humorous quirk or a mild inconvenience at worst.
Data from the British Lung Foundation cited above shows that up to 85% of OSA cases in the UK go undiagnosed, and therefore untreated. Additionally, 42% of people who snore or whose partners snore report not even having ever heard of OSA.
Ignoring OSA’s initial symptoms can be fatal. Undiagnosed OSA is also closely associated with a slew of other conditions, namely hypertension, stroke, and diabetes.
Even if the symptoms initially appear innocuous, like snoring, it’s best to consult a medical expert if the symptoms start to consistently get in the way of a good night’s rest. Watch also for other symptoms such as feeling fatigued, sleepy, and irritable. Finally, the surest sign that it’s time to consult a doctor is if you have chronic snoring loud enough to wake a bed partner.
Be around for any lifestyle changes
Doctors may require a physical examination involving examining the back of a person’s throat, mouth and nose for extra tissue or abnormalities when diagnosing someone with sleep apnoea. Evaluations may even involve the overnight monitoring of someone’s sleep habits. Depending on the result, it’s possible that patients will even be referred to a specialist or a sleep centre for further evaluation.
The process of even just finding out if one has sleep apnoea can be dauntless. Accompanying your loved ones to all of their medical appointments will be a great help. It is helpful to have another person in the room asking doctors questions your loved one may have missed. It will also be helpful for you to hear what the doctor has to say, in order to gain a better understanding of what it takes to treat sleep apnoea.
Treating sleep apnoea will require a lifestyle change. For example, a 2012 study identified smoking as an outsize risk factor for developing sleep apnoea. According to the study, people with sleep apnoea may even be predisposed to smoking, possibly as a coping mechanism. People with sleep apnoea will have to quit smoking, a change made easier with the support of family and friends.
Other lifestyle changes necessitated by sleep apnoea will also include a change in diet. Excess body weight causes sleep apnoea by putting increased pressure on the upper airways, with the result that your body loses neuromuscular control from the fatty deposits. These fatty deposits then also lessen lung volume and make it harder to breathe. By maintaining a healthy weight, one can avoid the need for upper airway surgery or long-term continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy.
As your loved one tries to get their body in healthier shape to fight sleep apnoea, your consistent presence can provide them with the motivation they need to stay disciplined. Research even shows that 95% of people who started a weight loss program with a friend were able to complete it. In contrast, just 76% of people who tackled a weight loss program by themselves were able to complete it. Finally, the friend group was also 42% more likely to maintain their weight loss.
It can be difficult for some to discuss medical issues, even with a partner. Yet it’s still important to keep lines of communication open and encourage honest dialogue about their condition, the progress of treatment, and how they’re feeling overall.
Maintaining robust and open communication is especially important because sleep apnoea is linked to an irritable mood and carries a negative effect on one’s thinking skills. This is because people with sleep apnoea have lower levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid and abnormally high levels of glutamate. The imbalance between these two brain chemicals results in a brain that’s stressed, compounding the effects of poor sleep quality.
Open communication will also be important when discussing sleep apnoea treatments that could affect a relationship. For example, alternative sleeping arrangements where couples sleep apart from one another have emerged as one way to cope with the effects of sleep apnoea. Nearly one in six British couples who live together now sleep apart, with 90% of that number doing so in separate rooms. Snoring has been the most commonly cited reason for sleeping apart. Alternative sleeping arrangements may even become increasingly necessary when using CPAP machines designed to pump air into a user’s airways as they sleep (they can be loud).
Overall, sleep apnoea can be stressful for the person affected but it also affects that person’s friends and family. Overcoming sleep apnoea will have to be a group effort requiring taking even the slightest of symptoms seriously, showing a willingness to undergo a lifestyle change and a commitment to honest and open communication. Though supporting someone with sleep apnoea will take time, the end result will be a stronger, healthier relationship between you and your loved one.
- British Lung Foundation. (n.d.). OSA UK health economics report. British Lung Foundation. https://www.blf.org.uk/support-for-you/obstructive-sleep-apnoea-osa/health-care-professionals/health-economics-report
- Healthline. (n.d.). What Is Severe Sleep Apnea and How’s It Treated? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/sleep/severe-sleep-apnea#:~:text=You’re%20considered%20to%20have,hour%20you%20have%20while%20sleeping.
- Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Obstructive Sleep Apnea. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/obstructive-sleep-apnea/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20352095
- Lin, Y. N., Li, Q. Y., & Zhang, X. J. (2012). Interaction between smoking and obstructive sleep apnea: not just participants. Chinese medical journal, 125(17), 3150–3156.
- Wing, R. R., & Jeffery, R. W. (1999). Benefits of recruiting participants with friends and increasing social support for weight loss and maintenance. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 67(1), 132–138. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-006x.67.1.132
- WebMD. (2016, February 29). Sleep Apnea May Affect Your Mood, Thinking Skills. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/sleep-apnea/news/20160229/sleep-apnea-may-take-toll-on-your-mood-thinking-skills
- National Bed Federation. (2020, February 28). Sleep Divorce Soars. National Bed Federation. https://www.bedfed.org.uk/sleep-divorce-soars/#:~:text=Nearly%20one%20in%20six%20(15,doing%20so%20in%20separate%20rooms.