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A Dangerous Kind of Sleep

May 1, 2022   Return

E_Datuk Dr Kuljit Si...

Datuk Dr Kuljit Singh   Consultant Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon

Sleep is essential for our health and wellbeing. If we think of our body as a machine that works all day long, sleep is the time when most of the important and more intensive processes wind down, giving the body a chance to perform any fine-tuning, repair and even rest. This is why we are refreshed and ready to go after a good night’s sleep, while the lack of sleep makes us feel increasingly lethargic and unable to focus.

While many of us may take sleep for granted, people with obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) would know very well the distressing consequences of sleep deprivation. Unlike insomnia and many other sleep disorders, people with OSA can still have a full night’s sleep. They are, however, unable to enjoy the benefits of a good night’s sleep like other people.

Datuk Dr Kuljit Singh, a consultant ENT surgeon, shares with us more information on OSA.

Sleeping, but not always breathing

“OSA is basically a condition in which the sleeping person stops breathing,” explains Dr Kuljit. “This happens in consecutive episodes – breathing repeatedly stops and starts again throughout sleep.”

The cessation is caused by some kind of obstruction – hence, the name of this condition – that blocks or narrows the airways while the person is asleep.


This obstructive effect can be caused by the airways themselves being narrower than usual, or by the presence of excess fat around the neck region. Consequently, overweight people are usually at a higher risk of OSA. Genetics can affect one’s risk too, as people born with narrow airways or thick, short necks are normally at a higher risk.

For someone with OSA, repeated cessations of breathing cause the body to take steps in getting him or her to breathe again. The sleep cycle is continuously interrupted even as the person continues to slumber. As a result, he or she never reaches the desired restful phase. When the person wakes up, he or she would still be feeling tired.

People with OSA may temporarily stop breathing from a few times to even several hundred times a night, depending on the severity of the condition!

Some people with OSA may opt for sleeping pills as a way to improve their sleep. Dr Kuljit strongly advises against this, as such medication may slow or stop the body’s ability to resume breathing – resulting in dangerous consequences.

The body wears down

According to Dr Kuljit, people who are constantly tired and suffer from daytime sleepiness may have OSA. As a result, they have problems concentrating during daytime, which can be dangerous as this can cause accidents. People with OSA tend to show other signs of sleep deprivation, such as losing their temper easily and being unable to focus on the task at hand. Subsequently, their work performance and their relationships with the people around them may suffer.

In the long run, there will be health problems too. “A machine that keeps going without rest will break down. That goes for our body too,” says Dr Kuljit.

Because a person with OSA stops breathing often, the muscles involved in breathing work hard throughout the night to continuously get the person to resume breathing. Also, the flow of oxygen to the brain and other important organs are reduced during sleep. The strain of all the effort eventually wear the body down, adding to the tiredness experienced by the person during daytime. The heart is especially vulnerable to the strain. 

Does your partner have OSA?

  • Loud snores are a possible symptom of OSA, but they are not a certain sign of OSA. If you suspect that your partner has OSA, try observing him or her as your partner sleeps. Other signs of OSA include:
  • Periods of time when the body stops breathing.
  • Breathing resumes with a loud gasp or snort, usually accompanied by a jerking of the body.

If you suspect that you (or your partner) have OSA, Dr Kuljit advises a visit to either a respiratory or an ENT specialist for diagnosis and medical attention.

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