WITH 2,000 known sufferers and a further 8,000 thought to be undiagnosed in Swindon and Wiltshire, experts are urging people in the region not to ignore the tell-tale signs of obstructive sleep apnoea.

Although widespread, very little is known about the illness which causes interrupted breathing during sleep.

Even obvious symptoms such as loud snoring and excessive tiredness are missed not only by sufferers who brush them off as the result of a busy and stressful life but too often misdiagnosed by GPs.

Left untreated, sleep apnoea can lead to serious health problems such as strokes, abnormal heart rhythm, type two diabetes and high blood pressure.

“Some people can stop breathing more than 30 times an hour during the night,” said Sam Backway, sleep specialist nurse at the Great Western Hospital. “The highest we have seen was 170 times an hour.

“Snoring, excessive tiredness during the day – like falling asleep at work or driving because people have not been able to sleep properly – and stopping to breathe are the three main signs of sleep apnoea.

“But most people have it for years before they realise something is wrong.

“People put excessive tiredness down to their jobs and think restless sleep is caused by stress. We want to make people aware of the symptoms.

“People don’t die of sleep apnoea but they can die of conditions caused by it, like strokes or heart problems.”

Breathing is noisy and laboured for most people with the condition and it is often interrupted by gasping and snorting with each episode of apnoea.

The repeated interruptions to sleep caused by obstructive sleep apnoea can make the person feel very tired during the day.

A person with OSA will usually have no memory of breathlessness, so they are often unaware that they are not getting a proper night’s sleep.

While being overweight can help trigger sleep apnoea as extra body fat in the neck can place a strain on the throat muscles, it can also be caused by an unusually recessed jaw or a narrow airway.

Although not curable, sleep apnoea is easily treated with continuous positive airway pressure. This involves wearing a mask at night connected to an air pump which blows the airway open.

To better raise awareness of the condition, which affects six per cent of men and four per cent of women in the UK, Sam will stage an information and support morning at GWH on Saturday, May 24 between 10am and 1pm.

“It’s about prevention,” said Sam. “We want to stop people from getting strokes or diabetes. “Although sleep apnoea is not curable as such we can prevent conditions which come as a result of it. “I think sleep apnoea is underestimated; it can have a huge impact on people’s lives.”

l To sign up to the support morning email ghw.sleepservice@nhs.net or call 01793 604098.