These days, there is a lot of stress to go around. Between economic disruption and the risk of disease, people are finding a lot to worry about, even here in Nebraska, which hasn’t been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and seems to be largely avoiding the second wave of infections sweeping other parts of the country. 

Now a new study shows that stress could be another important risk factor for sleep apnea. Although the data is limited, it reminds us that if doctors neglect sleep apnea when treating related health conditions, the results could be dangerous. 

man sleeping hard in bed, snoring

Stress among Medical Workers

This new study is focused on the stress of nurses and other medical workers in Wuhan province while treating COVID-19 patients. Researchers had 30 members of the medical and nursing staff with insomnia symptoms wear pulse oximeters. The workers were also given questionnaires to evaluate their insomnia and their levels of stress and other mental health challenges. Previous studies have shown that medical workers in Wuhan experienced high levels of stress while treating COVID-19 patients, and this study showed similar stress levels. 

In addition, researchers were able to show nearly 40% of the participants had moderate to severe sleep apnea, as flagged by drops in oxygen saturation during sleep, occurring at least 15 times an hour. 

Statistical analysis showed that sleep apnea was significantly associated with both insomnia and high levels of stress. They found that high stress levels were associated with a 50% higher risk of sleep apnea. 

In their conclusion, researchers stated, “Medical and nursing staff with insomnia showed clear signs of comorbid sleep apnoea attributable to stress.” 

Causation Is Uncertain, but the Conclusion Matters

Although researchers say that the sleep apnea is “attributable to stress,” the conclusion has to be taken with a grain of salt. First, their sample size is very small, so it’s likely that the statistical analysis doesn’t bear as much weight as it would with a larger study. Second, the study shows correlation between the two conditions, but it doesn’t really establish causation. For example, there is little discussion of the mechanism by which stress leads to sleep apnea. 

But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the conclusion. As the researchers point out, doctors often prescribe benzodiazepines to help stressed patients relax. However, in people with sleep apnea, benzodiazepines can have serious complications. They can lead to acute respiratory failure in people with obstructive sleep apnea. 

It doesn’t matter whether stress causes sleep apnea or if sleep apnea makes people more susceptible to stress–if the two occur together, they should be treated together to help people achieve the best results with the lowest risk. 

man sleeping hard in bed, snoring with mouth wide open

Consider Sleep Apnea If You Have Related Health Conditions

Sleep apnea is a largely undiagnosed condition. Perhaps 80-90% of sufferers don’t know they have it, and this could lead to problems when doctors try to treat related conditions. For example, sleep apnea commonly underlies medication-resistant hypertension. And sleep apnea is a high risk factor for rehospitalization after treatment. Not to mention recent information about post-stroke depression and sleep apnea

After a diagnosis for a related medical or psychological condition, talk to your doctor or seek an outside opinion on sleep apnea. This can help you get more effective treatment and help you get and stay healthy. 

For more information about how sleep apnea interacts with other health conditions, please call (402) 493-4175 today for an appointment with a sleep dentist or doctor at the Advanced Dental Sleep Treatment Center, treating patients from Omaha and around Nebraska.