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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