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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 01:46 GMT
Cutting sleep disorder danger
Sleep apnoea is a dangerous condition
A night time breathing support could help to prolong the lives of people who suffer from the disorder sleep apnoea.

Scientists have found that use of a support leads to a reduction in blood pressure - and in the probable risk of stroke and other cardiovascular disease.

Obstructive sleep apnoea is a serious condition in which airflow from the nose and mouth to the lungs is restricted during sleep.

Treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea probably produces a significant reduction in the risk of stroke

Dr Robert Davies
It is second only to asthma as a cause of chronic respiratory disease.

Sufferers snore loudly and often feel sleepy during the daytime because they do not sleep soundly at night.

They also have a lower than normal concentration of oxygen in their blood, and tend to have high blood pressure and a raised risk of cardiovascular disease.

Untreated sleep apnoea patients have about a 3% risk of a stroke or other cardiovascular event each year.

Breathing aid

Use of a breathing support device called nasal continuous positive airway pressure (nCPAP) is known to improve sleep quality.

It works by delivering air into the airway through a specially designed nasal mask or pillows.

The mask does not actually breathe for the patient, but the flow of air creates enough pressure upon inhalation to keep the airway open.

However, the impact of the treatment on blood pressure has been unclear.

A team from the Oxford Sleep Unit at Oxford Radcliffe Hospital carried out tests of the treatment on 118 men with severe obstructive sleep apnoea.

The average blood pressure of patients who were given nCPAP fell much more than those who were given an ineffective dummy form of the treatment.

The effect was found when the patients were both awake and asleep.

Most impact

Patients with the most severe form of the condition benefited the most.

The beneficial effect was most pronounced of all in patients who were taking medication for high blood pressure.

Lead researcher Dr Robert Davies said: "We have shown a clinically important lowering of blood pressure when patients with moderate or severe obstructive sleep apnoea are given therapeutic nCPAP.

"As a result of this reduction we conclude that nCPAP treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea probably produces a significant reduction in the risk of stroke and other cardiovascular diseases as well as substantially improving these patients' excessive daytime sleepiness and quality of life."

Widespread problem

Dr Tom Mackay, a consultant respiratory physician at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, told BBC News Online that sleep apnoea was a widespread problem affecting up to 4% of middle aged men.

"There has been a debate about whether sleep apnoea is directly related to high blood pressure, so this is a very useful result."

The reason why sleep apnoea leads to raised blood pressure is unclear.

One theory is the reduction in oxygen supply that the condition causes, coupled with lack of sleep stimulates the production of hormones such as adrenalin, which in turn stimulate the nervous system to make the heart beat faster.

The research is published in The Lancet medical journal.

See also:

04 Jan 01 | Health
Sleep surgery 'unlikely to work'
27 Dec 01 | Health
'Snore box' spots sleep trouble
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