Severe snorers could be breathing easier thanks to a discovery by an Australian-based scientist.
Dr Danny Eckert and his team have found previously unknown causes of obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), which means new treatments could be on the way.
At present about one million Australians with the condition need a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device at night.
It is a life-saver, but it is intrusive and requires a bedside machine connected to a mask worn over the mouth and nose.
The discovery could change the landscape of treatment, says Dr Eckert, a former Harvard researcher now at Neuroscience Research Australia.
The Harvard-led study shows anatomy, weight and age are not the only causes of OSA, says his report, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
“We’ve unearthed brand new problem areas,” Dr Eckert said.
These involve muscle responsiveness in sleep, waking too easily and a response to carbon dioxide that builds up while asleep.
“We might be able to treat these rather than focus solely on the problem of a collapsing airway, as we have until now.
“That’s a pretty exciting development that takes treatment in a totally new direction.”
The results suggest that in future more than 50 per cent of sleep apnoea patients could be treated with medication.
Australasian Sleep Association president Dr Nick Antic says the finding proves the condition is far more complex than thought.
“There is no doubt this is the cutting edge of understanding the disease in adults.”
He cautioned, however, that potential new treatments would take years to reach patients.
“CPAP is still a highly effective therapy and any new therapies must be as effective and safe.
“Not everyone tolerates CPAP and having different options is exciting.”