Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, like war, criminal assault, sexual violence, terrorism, natural disasters or serious accidents. People with PTSD have intense, often disturbing thoughts, feelings, nightmares or flashbacks related to their experience long after the traumatic event. Sleep problems are a common symptom of PTSD, and emerging research has revealed a strong correlation between PTSD and sleep apnea.
What is the Connection Between PTSD and Sleep Apnea?
Studies show that those with PTSD have much higher rates of OSA (obstructive sleep apnea) than the general population. OSA affects between 17 and 22 percent of the general population, and 12 to 90 percent among individuals with PTSD. OSA prevalence varies in different PTSD victims. For example, a VA hospital study found that 83 percent of Vietnam veterans diagnosed with PTSD had at least mild OSA.
It is still unclear whether one disorder (OSA or PTSD) causes the other. However, individuals with both OSA and PTSD are more likely to have severe PTSD and OSA symptoms. In addition, the effects of each disorder can often worsen symptoms of the other. Many factors may contribute to the connection between PTSD and sleep apnea, including disturbed sleep in combat, prolonged sleep deprivation, sleep fragmentation, chronic stress and coexisting mood disorders.
According to experts, more research is needed to understand the complex relationship of PTSD and sleep apnea. Effective treatment of sleep apnea may also help alleviate PTSD symptoms, while untreated OSA is associated with worse outcomes among PTSD patients.
CPAP for PTSD and OSA
Research shows that consistent CPAP therapy can relieve both symptoms of OSA and PTSD, including depression and nightmares, in patients with OSA and PTSD. Adherence to CPAP therapy in individuals with PTSD, especially in veterans, may be difficult due to masking discomfort, nightmares and claustrophobia. However, the more a patient uses their CPAP therapy, the more their PTSD symptoms improve.
If you or someone you know suffers from PTSD and are concerned you have sleep apnea, you should consider seeing a doctor for proper treatment.