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PTSD and Sleep Apnea

October 12, 2023


PTSD and Sleep Apnea

Even though post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and sleep apnea are vastly different conditions, they have a surprisingly close relationship. A growing body of research is shedding light on the disorders; here’s what you need to know about how they are related and how a person with both can still have good sleep health.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after an individual experiences a traumatic event. While this condition is commonly associated with combat exposure in military personnel, it can come from various experiences. Medical professionals often link PTSD diagnoses to events such as physical or sexual assault, natural disasters, accidents, or even the sudden death of a loved one. PTSD is characterized by a range of symptoms, including:

  • Flashbacks and intrusive memories of the traumatic event.
  • Nightmares and sleep disturbances.
  • Hypervigilance and heightened anxiety.
  • Avoidance of reminders of the trauma.
  • Adverse changes in mood and cognition.

One of the lesser-known effects of PTSD is its impact on sleep patterns. Individuals with PTSD often experience severe insomnia, frequent awakenings during the night, and a heightened state of alertness during sleep. These sleep disturbances can lead to physical and other psychological health problems, including an increased risk of developing sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder characterized by interrupted breathing during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type and occurs when the muscles at the back of the throat relax excessively, causing a temporary airway blockage. Sleep apnea leads to repeated awakenings throughout the night, often without the individual being aware of them.

Common sleep apnea symptoms include loud snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, and difficulty concentrating. However, the impact of sleep apnea goes beyond these symptoms, as it has been linked to various health issues, including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and even an increased risk of accidents due to daytime drowsiness.

Does PTSD Cause Sleep Apnea?

Does PTSD cause sleep apnea, or is it the other way around? It is still unclear. It is known that those with severe sleep apnea are more likely to have severe PTSD. At the same time, the more severe their PTSD, the more severe their OSA.

Further, sleep disturbances caused by sleep apnea can contribute to sleep deprivation, adversely affecting PTSD recovery. Sleep apnea can cause poor sleep quality, potentially impairing decision-making and affecting mood, leading to non-compliance with CPAP as a treatment for sleep apnea, even if a person is not waking up during apneas.

Conversely, the hypervigilance and anxiety associated with PTSD can lead to increased muscle tension, including the throat muscles, which may contribute to developing or exacerbating obstructive sleep apnea.

Fear Extinction

One of the best-known treatments for PTSD is good sleep quality. REM sleep, in particular, plays a vital role in fear extinction, a standard therapy for PTSD patients. Fear extinction is a process where your brain forgets the association of a neutral trigger with a fear response.

Usually, REM sleep consolidates memories and also removes fear from specific memories. PTSD patients commonly report nightmares as a symptom of the disorder, which occurs during REM sleep. This, combined with sleep interruptions due to sleep apnea, often gives patients poor sleep quality.

Treatment Options For PTSD and Sleep Apnea

Managing co-occurrences of PTSD and sleep apnea requires a comprehensive approach that addresses both conditions simultaneously. Treatment options may include:

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is an effective treatment for PTSD. It is a form of talk therapy that helps you manage your disorder by changing how you act and think.
  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) Therapy: CPAP is the primary treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. It involves wearing a mask that delivers a continuous air flow to keep the airway open during sleep.
  • Medication: In some cases, medication may be prescribed to help manage symptoms of PTSD or sleep disturbances. A healthcare professional should carefully guide the use of medications.
  • Lifestyle Changes: These conditions have a few common risk factors. Smokers, alcohol users, and overweight people are more likely to develop PTSD and sleep apnea. Slopping substance use and losing weight may improve both conditions.

PTSD and sleep apnea are complex conditions that can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life. Understanding the intricate relationship between the two is crucial for effective diagnosis and treatment. If you think you may have sleep apnea, we can help you get diagnosed. For help coordinating a sleep study, visit www.advancedhomecareonline.com/sleep-studies.

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