Sleep apnea can lead to many other health issues. Some of these health problems can cause sleep apnea, and others result from it. Interestingly, many of these health conditions involve the heart and lungs. So it might have you wondering: Can sleep apnea cause lung problems?
It’s true that sleep apnea affects your breathing. These apneas, or periods when breathing stops and starts, might make you think it is a lung disease. According to the American Lung Association, the term lung disease refers to any disorder affecting the lungs. This includes disorders like asthma, COPD, cancer, influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and many others. While sleep apnea can have serious consequences for lung health, the primary function of the condition is sleep related.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Before we look at how it affects your lung health, let’s look at what sleep apnea is.

Apnea is a ‘temporary cessation of breathing, especially during sleep’. Based on the definition, referring to the condition as ‘sleep apnea’ may seem redundant. But because apneas can occur at other times, it is an important distinction to make.

With sleep apnea, breathing stops and starts at least 5 times an hour, but can pause as many as several hundred times a night. These pauses can last anywhere from 5 seconds to several minutes at a time. When this happens, blood oxygen levels drop and trigger you to wake up. Frequent sleep disruptions causes a variety of side effects. These side effects may include:

  • Irritability
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Fatigue
  • Forgetfulness
  • Driving accidents
  • Depression

There are a few types of sleep apnea but the most common type is Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). With OSA these apnea events occur when the airway becomes partially or completely blocked during sleep. The blockage may be due to several different factors.

Common causes of Obstructive Sleep Apnea are:

  • Relaxation of the neck and throat muscles, causing the soft palate to collapse
  • Tongue balling up in the back of the throat
  • Fatty deposits in the tongue or neck restrict the airway
  • Narrow airway

With OSA the brain continues sending messages to the body to breathe. The muscles of the chest and diaphragm work even harder to breathe but are not able to completely clear the blockage. This results in the loud snoring, choking, or gasping during sleep that is common for people with the condition.

With lung diseases the primary function of the disorder begins in the lungs. But, in sleep apnea the issue starts in the brain or in the airway itself and occurs only during sleep. As a result, it is most accurate to refer to sleep apnea as a form of sleep-disordered breathing.

Can Sleep Apnea Cause Lung Problems?

While classified as a sleep disorder, sleep apnea does lead to or worsen lung problems.

Research published in BMC Pulmonary Medicine found that patients with OSA had increased lung elasticity recoil pressure. The elastic quality of lung tissues is what allows them to expand and contract when you breathe. With increased lung elasticity recoil pressure the lungs snap back too forcefully. This creates a vacuum effect that contributes to airway collapse in OSA. The resulting reduction in lung volume increases the risk or worsens the symptoms of some very serious lung problems.

Lung problems that are common in patients with sleep apnea include:

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Pulmonary Hypertension
  • Asthma

COPD

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, is an umbrella term for a group of conditions that make breathing difficult. This difficulty arises from clogged or narrow airways. It is usually the result of inflammation in the internal structures or damage to the air sacs in the lungs. This damage is typically caused by smoking and air pollutants.

A review in the journal Lung found that up to 66% of COPD sufferers also suffer from sleep apnea. As where only around 20% of patients with sleep apnea also have COPD. Doctors refer to this as “overlap syndrome”. Patients with COPD have an increased risk of heart attack. When paired with sleep apnea it will lead to high blood pressure, arrhythmia, heart failure, and stroke if left untreated. Unfortunately there is no cure for COPD and the condition tends to worsen over time. However, symptoms do improve with treatment and the use of sleep apnea therapy.

Pulmonary Hypertension

Patients with sleep apnea have an increased risk of developing pulmonary hypertension (PH). Pulmonary hypertension is a type of high blood pressure. It causes increased blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs and in the right side of the heart. Patients with pulmonary hypertension experience shortness of breath, dizziness, and chest pressure. How exactly sleep apnea causes pulmonary hypertension remains controversial. However, we know that periods of low blood oxygen (hypoxia) cause the heart to work harder to continue supplying oxygen to the body. With sleep apnea these periods of hypoxia happen more frequently, sometimes several hundred times a night. Studies show that as many as 82% of patients with PH have some form of sleep apnea. Like COPD, pulmonary hypertension worsens over time. Similarly, patients can reduce the severity of their symptoms and improve quality of life with treatment.

Asthma

Asthma is a condition in which a person’s airways are highly sensitive. When exposed to a trigger the airway becomes inflamed and swollen, restricting the flow of air through the lungs. This irritation also causes the lungs to secrete more mucus, making it even harder to breathe. Asthma and sleep apnea are both common conditions and seem to play off each other. In the BCM Pulmonary Medicine review researchers found a synergistic link between the two conditions. Subjects with OSA had a narrower airway on average, as did subjects who only had asthma. Airway diameter was even smaller in subjects who had both. They found that 49% of subjects with difficult-to-treat asthma also suffered from mild to moderate OSA. The data also showed a direct link between how intense their OSA was and the severity of their asthma symptoms. When asthma is well controlled, OSA symptoms also decrease.

Reduce the Risk of Your Apnea and Lung Problems 

The good news is that sleep apnea is easy to treat. Patients see improvement in their quality of life soon after beginning sleep apnea therapy. At Sleep Better Columbus we know how important it is to get a good night’s sleep. CPAP machines are a great option but we know they can be uncomfortable and make sleeping difficult. We provide high quality, custom fitted oral appliances to keep your airway clear. An oral appliance shifts the lower jaw forward. This prevents soft palate collapse and keeps the tongue from balling up at the back of the throat. Because our oral appliances are lightweight and custom fitted, patients have an easier time adjusting. This results in better compliance and faster relief. Reducing your symptoms will improve your quality of life and reduce your risks of lung problems.

Do you wonder if sleep apnea can cause lung problems? Call Sleep Better Columbus at (614) 362-7292 for more information.