What’s the Connection Between Sleep Apnea and Cervical Spine Disorders?  

 Cervical Spine Disorders?

 Let’s face it. No one wants to be interrupted during a good night’s sleep. Whether it’s a snoring partner, a phone call, or aches and pains that keep a person from catching our full seven or eight hours of zzzz’s, a lack of solid sleep at night can make most of us tired and cranky the next day. But for the estimated 22 million Americans suffering from sleep apnea, the results can be much more serious, and studies show that, unfortunately, patients who are already afflicted with cervical spine disorders are much more susceptible to this dangerous sleep condition.

The facts about sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition that can occur when the upper airway becomes blocked repeatedly during sleep, reducing or completely obstructing airflow. When left undiagnosed or untreated, sleep apnea can lead to serious health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, glaucoma, diabetes, and cognitive and behavioral disorders. Plus, the grogginess that comes after a night of suffering from sleep apnea can lead to falling asleep while driving; in fact, people suffering from this condition are more than 2.5 times more likely to have a car accident caused by drowsy driving.

The common symptoms of sleep apnea—snoring, gasping for air while sleeping, waking up with a headache, irritability, and being excessively sleepy during the day—are often ignored or written off as being caused by other factors. A sleep study at a sleep disorders institute, during which sensors are attached to a patient’s body to monitor sleep patterns, can help to confirm or rule out a suspected diagnosis of sleep apnea.

The facts about cervical spine disorders

 Any injury to the spinal cord is incredibly dangerous, but cervical spinal cord injuries are the most severe. The cervical spine (the topmost section of the spinal cord, located in the neck) performs several crucial roles: it houses and protects the spinal cord, supports the head and its movement, and facilitates the flow of blood to the brain. Cervical spine injuries, therefore, can be debilitating, causing paralysis, cardiac and circulatory issues, and increasing risk of death.

The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center estimates that about 17,700 Americans suffer spinal cord injuries each year, and approximately 288,000 people are living with the disorder today and require some type of orthopedic care. Injuries to the cervical and thoracic areas are the most common. Behind motor vehicle accidents, the most prevalent causes of spinal cord injuries are falls, acts of violence (primarily gunshot wounds), and sports injuries.

How the two are connected

Those who survive a cervical spinal cord injury often suffer from a variety of respiratory issues. In fact, a recent study found that 77 percent of spinal cord injury survivors have sleep-disordered breathing with a high occurrence of sleep apnea. There are several reasons for this connection. Spinal cord injuries weaken the breathing muscles in the diaphragm, severely altering normal breathing processes. Additionally, patients with injuries to or disorders in the seven vertebrae in the cervical spine, which is located directly behind the airway in the neck, are especially susceptible to sleep apnea. While this fact is widely accepted in the medical field, researchers are still striving to define and understand the specific connections between cervical spine disorder pathologies and sleep apnea.

Diagnosing and dealing with sleep apnea with a spinal disorder

Despite being extremely prevalent in patients with spinal disorders, sleep apnea isn’t always easily diagnosed. Because sleepiness is common with patients taking certain medicines, even hospital staff will assume the culprit is medicine, and not a breathing disorder. Also, spinal cord specialists may not be as familiar with sleep apnea and its symptoms and treatments.

The most common treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP therapy. CPAP machines pump pump pressurized air through a mask that patients wear over their nose and mouth. The continuous air keeps the upper airway inflated so that it doesn’t collapse while breathing.

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