Sleep apnoea


Sleep apnoea is a sleep disorder where the muscles in the throat relax and narrow during sleep, interrupting normal breathing.

Those with the Chiari II malformation (associated with open spina bifida) are more likely to have sleep apnoea than the general population. There are two main types of sleep apnoea, obstructive and central.

Obstructive sleep apnoea occurs when breathing is disrupted by something blocking the throat - usually a narrowing of the windpipe. This is a relatively common condition and can become more noticeable with age and if you are overweight, especially with excess weight around the neck.

Central sleep apnoea, a more serious and much less common condition, occurs when there is a delay in the nerve signals from the brain that control breathing.

Symptoms of sleep apnoea when asleep include:

  • Snoring
  • Stopping breathing
  • Tossing and turning
  • Choking

If you have sleep apnoea you may wake up feeling unrefreshed and with a headache, you may feel groggy, tired and have difficulty concentrating and remembering.

Left untreated, sleep apnoea can have many effects on your body including:

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Once sleep apnoea is diagnosed and successfully treated you will almost always see benefits to your health, and will have more energy during the day. Just as importantly, you will be protecting yourself from further damage to your body.


The treatment of choice for adults with sleep apnoea is a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine which blows air through a mask to keep your airways open. In milder cases of sleep apnoea other treatments may be used.

If CPAP is being considered as a treatment and you have a programmable shunt, find out whether it is MRI-resistant (see our Know Your Shunt information). If it is not MRI-resistant, ask about non-magnetic CPAP masks. 

If you are overweight, you may find your sleep apnoea improves when you lose weight.

If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, book an appointment with your GP. If you share a bed with someone, if might be helpful to take them along to the appointment as you might not be aware of what is happening during your sleep.

Your GP may ask you to fill in an Epworth Sleepiness Scale, a tool used to help to diagnose sleep apnoea. You may then be referred to a sleep clinic for a sleep study, also called a polysomnography. A sleep study is needed before a diagnosis of sleep apnoea can be made. During the sleep study, oxygen levels will be measured while you sleep, and you will be videoed, to see whether episodes of breathing difficulties occur.

Sleep apnoea can also affect children and it affects them in the same way as adults. The most common symptom in children is stopping breathing during sleep.

Click here for information about the Epworth Sleepiness Scale: 


The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) has different guidelines depending on the level of sleepiness and stage of diagnosis and treatment you are at.

Click here for information on when to contact DVLA

The following charities provide further information about sleep apnoea:


Reviewed: 10/04/24


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