A Woman Sleeping

The Importance of Diagnosing Sleep Apnea with Spinal Cord Injuries

Today’s guest article was written by Ramie A. Tritt, MD, President, Atlanta ENT.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that is characterized by pauses in the normal breathing patterns during sleep. These pauses can last just a few seconds, or as long as a half of a minute, and may involve a choking or gasping sound or accompany heavy snoring. Sleep apnea has been linked to a number of life-threatening diseases and health problems, including heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine shows that as much as 77 percent of spinal cord injury survivors develop sleep apnea.

A Graphic Shows Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is characterized as either obstructive or central. Obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, is caused by a relaxing of the soft tissues of the mouth and throat during sleep, which block the airways. Central sleep apnea is more rare, and is caused by signals not transmitting from the brain to the breath control muscles properly. Both types of sleep apnea were found in spinal cord injury survivors.

A Graphic of Sleep Apnea Symptoms

Some people may sleep through apnea episodes, while others will wake up and have trouble falling back asleep. Either way, excessive daytime sleepiness is a common complaint among apnea sufferers and leads to a lower overall quality of life. In the study, 97 percent of those with spinal cord injuries complained of poor sleep quality.

A Man Sleeps During a Sleep Study

The good news is that there are effective ways to diagnose and treat sleep apnea for people with spinal cord injuries, and once treated, symptoms and risks decrease exponentially. The first step is to visit a sleep clinic and have a diagnostic sleep study done. During a sleep study, you’ll be assigned a room to sleep in. There will be a central monitoring area where technicians monitor sleeping patients. Equipment will transmit information about your breathing pattern and vitals while you sleep. Most people have little problem falling asleep during the sleep study, and there is no pain involved.

A Woman Using a CPAP Machine for Sleep Apnea

Once a diagnosis of sleep apnea has been made, treatment options vary, and can range from the use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) to oral appliances or surgery, depending on severity and overall health.

Sleep apnea is more than just a nuisance; it’s a life-threatening problem if left untreated. Before you discount your snoring or daytime sleepiness, visit an ear, nose and throat specialist for a sleep study—and a better night’s sleep.

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2 thoughts on “The Importance of Diagnosing Sleep Apnea with Spinal Cord Injuries

  1. deadgrrrl@gmail.com'josephine

    You say there’s no pain involved, but you’ve obviously never had anyone go at your scalp with a pumice stone (to the point of drawing blood) to stick the electrodes on. And you’ve obviously never slept hooked up to tons of wires and machines in a strange bed.

    Sleep apnea is an underdiagnosed and undertreated problem, and probably THE easiest to treat chronic health condition (a reliable machine and no drugs while still making life infinitely better? hell yes!), but being so nonchalant about the process is the same thing as doctors telling kids “this won’t hurt a bit!” before stabbing them with a huge needle.

    1. Susan Hawkins

      Hi, Josephine—your comment was unsettling, to say the least. So sorry to hear about your experience. I’ve had a sleep study, and that wasn’t my experience at all. When I read your comment, I went online to check it out, and apparently there have been instances where pumice is used to prepare skin for electrodes. Next, I contacted Dr. Ramie, and he believes it’s an isolated case. He says he’s never heard of it from “thousands of patients who have had thousands of sleep studies done over the past 30 years.” I do hope the sleep study you had done gave you the information you needed, so you won’t require another, though I’m sure you now know the right questions to ask if you ever do need a second sleep study. Thanks so much for your comment, because it will help others who need a sleep study know what to ask before they make an appointment.

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