Sleep Apnea and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Understanding and Managing Sleep Apnea and PTSD

doctor reading sleep chart
Inside a Madigan Army Medical Center Sleep Study. Flickr/Army Medicine

If you have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and have difficulty sleeping, you may have sleep apnea--shallow breathing or brief pauses in your breathing during sleep. Sleep apnea and PTSD often occur together.

How common is it to have sleep apnea and PTSD? Many people with a diagnosis of PTSD have sleeping problems. In fact, difficulty falling and/or staying asleep is one of the hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD.

In fact, a recent clinical study looked at sleep problems among soldiers returning from combat and diagnosed with PTSD: Almost two-thirds had sleep apnea.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

If you have sleep apnea, you may often experience one or more brief pauses (a few seconds to minutes) in your breathing or breathe shallowly while sleeping.

Normal breathing eventually starts up again; however, the pauses can greatly disrupt your sleep and may also prevent you from going into a deep sleep. The result? Sleep that is not satisfying or refreshing.

You could have sleep apnea but not know it. Although common, it often goes undiagnosed. Most people figure out they have it when a bed partner notices the sleep apnea symptoms.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

The tell-tale signs of sleep apnea include:

  • Constant loud snoring
  • Choking or gasping for air at night
  • Feeling tired and sleepy during the day
  • Headaches, especially in the morning
  • Concentration or memory problems
  • Being jarred out of sleep at night due to lack of air

Why Does Sleep Apnea Develop?

Sleep apnea has a number of causes:

  • Your throat muscles and tongue may relax more than normal during sleep, preventing your airway from staying open.
  • Your tongue and tonsils may be large compared to the opening into your airway.

Sleep apnea is also more common in men than women and in racial/ethnic minority groups. It may also have a genetic basis. If someone in your family has sleep apnea, you have a higher risk of developing it.

Sleep apnea has also been connected with a number of diseases and unhealthy behaviors, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoking.

Sleep Apnea in People with PTSD

Researchers haven't yet begun to explore why people with PTSD may be more likely to develop sleep apnea. But it is known that people with PTSD often show many sleep apnea risk factors. They may be more prone than people without PTSD to:

Managing Your Sleep Apnea and PTSD

Your first step is finding out if you have sleep apnea.

If you're diagnosed with it, you can learn more about sleep apnea and its treatment from Dr. Brandon Peters in the About.com guide to sleep. There are also a number of easy things you can do to improve your sleep in general. Check out this article for some basic ways of improving your sleep quality as part of managing your PTSD.

Sources:

Harvey, A. G., Jones, C., & Schmidt, D. A. (2003). Sleep and posttraumatic stress disorder: A review. Clinical Psychology Review, 23, 377-407.

Orr, N., Carter, K., Collen, J. F., Hoffman, M., Holley, A. B., & Lettieri, C. J. (2010). Prevalence of sleep disorders among soldiers with combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. CHEST, 138, 704A.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health (August 2010). Sleep Apnea: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/SleepApnea/SleepApnea_WhatIs.html

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