What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a harmful medical condition that causes the sufferer to stop breathing for brief periods during sleep.1 These breathing pauses known as 'apneic events' typically last between ten to sixty seconds and affect one in five Australian adults.2   Of these, approximately 80% of sufferers are unaware they have a potentially dangerous medical condition.

A recent study showed that one in ten Australians suffer from undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnoea.5 In males aged 40–69 years, this could be as high as 49 %, and in males aged >70 years, as high as 62%.6 Therefore, these sufferers are sorely undiagnosed and sadly untreated.

  • normal sleep – fewer than five events per hour
  • mild sleep apnea – between 5 and 15 events per hour
  • moderate sleep apnea – between 15 and 30 events per hour
  • severe sleep apnea – more than 30 events per hour.


The Physiological Effects of Sleep Apnea

When an apneic event occurs, the upper airway collapses and blocks the sufferers' oxygen intake.  

When oxygen levels drop too low, the nervous system jolts the sufferer briefly to resume breathing, disrupting their natural sleep cycle. Consequently, the sufferer spends less time in a deep sleep state where the body naturally strengthens the immune system, repairs cells and re-energises the body.

Untreated sleep apnea will lead to poor health3 with symptoms such as daytime sleepiness, slow reflexes, poor concentration and an increased risk of accidents. Other serious health problems can include weight gain, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

Many apnea sufferers adjust their lifestyle to overcome the daytime symptoms of sleep apnea but this is not always healthy.  Some rely on eating more food, caffeine or sugar to give themselves the energy needed to get them through the day.

Identifying Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is usually identified by a bed partner or family members who either witness an event or overhear loud snoring and sudden stoppages throughout the night.  

Otherwise, common symptoms such as excessive daytime sleepiness, lethargy, acid reflux and morning headaches are strong indicators.

Sleep apnea is easy to diagnose, allowing the sufferer to manage their symptoms and enjoy improved health, wellbeing and relationships.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are three types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA),
  • Central sleep apnea (CSA), and
  • Complex sleep apnea.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)

As an OSA sufferer sleeps, the tongue, soft palate, uvula and pharyngeal wall muscles relax, causing the airway to constrict, causing the body's oxygen levels to fall. The nervous system then induces a micro-arousal to resume breathing.

An OSA sufferer is usually unaware of breathing difficulties, apnea events or micro-arousals, even upon awakening because they are typically asleep when an event occurs.

Untreated OSA increases the risk of death and stroke, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart failure and diabetes. OSA causes interrupted sleep leading to excessive daytime sleepiness, increasing the risk of accidents and lost productivity.2

Central Sleep Apnea (CSA)

Central sleep apnea is much less common than OSA and occurs when the brain fails to send the right signals to the breathing muscles7, causing brief moments of lapsed breathing.

Like an OSA sufferer, a central sleep apnea sufferer may have trouble falling asleep or waking frequently.

Causes of central sleep apnea include stroke, brain infection, neck issues, severe obesity, and some narcotic painkillers.

Complex Sleep Apnea (mixed)

Complex sleep apnea syndrome, also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, occurs when a person suffers from obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea.

According to sleep.org, some people with both types of sleep apnea also suffer from obesity hypoventilation syndrome.8 This condition occurs when hindered breathing reduces oxygen and increases carbon dioxide in the blood.

Treating Sleep Apnea

Excellent treatment options exist, ranging from dental appliances to airway pressurisation to surgery.   

People with sleep apnea are four times more likely to have a stroke and three times more likely to die prematurely.9 Successful treatment of sleep apnea begins with an accurate diagnosis of the potential condition.

If you suspect that you (or someone you know) suffers from sleep apnea, complete our free online quiz to understand your sleep apnea risk profile.

Click here to learn Your Sleep Apnea Risk Profile or call to speak with a Care Coordinator today.


  1. betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/sleep-apnoea
  2. Deloitte Access Economics (Deloitte), Exhibit 2b: Asleep on the Job: Costs of Inadequate Sleep in Australia, 2017, p. 19.
  3. What You Need To Know About The Sleep Disorder Sleep Apnea. https://greatinsomniatips.com/insomnia/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-sleep-disorder-sleep-apnea/
  4. High prevalence of undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnoea in the general population and methods for screening for representative controls. Simpson L, Hillman DR, Cooper MN, Ward KL, Hunter M, Cullen S, James A, Palmer LJ, Mukherjee S, Eastwood P. Sleep Breath. 2013 Sep; 17(3):967-73.
  5. Symptoms of Transient Ischemic Attacks - ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=116972&page=1
  6. Undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea is independently .... https://portal.sahmriresearch.org/en/publications/undiagnosed-obstructive-sleep-apnea-is-independently-associated-w
  7. Know Types, Causes, and Treatment of Sleep Apnea. https://taylormadesleep.com/types-causes-and-treatment-of-sleep-apnea/
  8. What Is Sleep Apnea and Is It a Cause For Concern? | Sleep.org. https://www.sleep.org/sleep-apnea/
  9. 31 Important Sleep Apnea Statistics You Should Know in 2021. https://disturbmenot.co/sleep-apnea-statistics/

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