Treating Sleep Apnea in Epilepsy Reduces Seizures

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Sleep apnea increases a person’s seizures because it interrupts sleep and produces a chronic state of sleep deprivation.

If you have sleep apnea, various devices can be comfortably worn during sleep to keep the airway open.

If you or a loved one are experiencing seizures, you may wish to consider whether you’re one of the 40 percent of people with epilepsy who also have a commonly overlooked condition called obstructive sleep apnea. New research from Cleveland Clinic confirmed that in people with both conditions, treating the sleep apnea may make the epilepsy easier to manage.

Let’s examine the facts about obstructive sleep apnea. It occurs when the airway in the nose and throat becomes repeatedly blocked during sleep, briefly reducing or stopping the flow of air into the lungs. Common symptoms include snoring, gasping or pauses in breathing during sleep, as well as excessive daytime sleepiness. Sleep apnea may occur at any age, but it’s especially common among overweight adults. Women are less likely to be affected than men until menopause, when the difference disappears. Many people with epilepsy are unaware that they have sleep apnea, because not all people with sleep apnea snore, and the fatigue and daytime sleepiness may be mistakenly attributed to the effects of seizures and medication.

The reason obstructive sleep apnea increases a person’s seizures is probably because it interrupts sleep and produces a chronic state of sleep deprivation. If the obstructive sleep apnea is treated, the sleep becomes sounder, and the person experiences fewer arousals and awakenings. Since seizures tend to increase around the times of normal awakening for some people, it’s not difficult to imagine that constant mini-arousals could undermine seizure control. Obstructive sleep apnea also results in brief periods of reduced oxygen flow to the brain, and this can also make seizures more likely.

If you think you or a loved one may possibly have obstructive sleep apnea, the first step is to consult with a physician who specializes in sleep medicine. An overnight sleep study, or polysomnogram, will be required to detect any obstructive sleep apnea and determine how severe it is. The study is painless and involves wearing some special recording equipment while you sleep. In some cases, the test can even be performed in the comfort of your own home.

Sleep specialists can offer a wide variety of treatments to correct obstructive sleep apnea. For people with mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea, there are various ingenious devices which may be comfortably worn in the mouth during sleep to keep the airway open. For people with more severe obstructive sleep apnea, it may be helpful to wear a mask during sleep that delivers regular puffs of air through the nose and mouth, keeping the airway open with continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. Lifestyle changes may also play a role, such as losing any excess weight and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption. Multiple surgical options are also available, including implanting a device that stimulates the nerve controlling tongue movement during sleep.

Identifying and treating obstructive sleep apnea may improve anyone’s overall health and quality of life, but it is especially important for people experiencing epilepsy.

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