Understanding sleep apnea
Sleep apnea is a condition where breathing is disrupted during sleep. These pauses in breathing last for at least 10 seconds and may continue for a minute or more. Patients can experience breathing disruptions over 30 times an hour, though they’re not always aware of it.
When sleep apnea sufferers stop breathing, the muscles in the airway collapse completely. When the brain realizes the collapse, it signals the airway muscles to contract, reopening the airway. This jolts the person awake briefly, but they may fall asleep again seconds later. As a result, sleep apnea sufferers often feel drowsy during the day, though they don’t realize why.
The immune disorder connection
The connection between sleep apnea and immune disorders is well documented, though the reasons for the connection aren’t immediately clear. Scientists suspect that the association has to do with the fact that sleep apnea can cause inflammation in the blood vessels. This in turn can lead to problems with arthritis.
A study performed by researchers at Taipei Medical University revealed that patients who suffer from sleep apnea are 91 percent more likely to develop RA, ankylosing spondylitis, or systemic lupus erythematosus. Though this is a significant increase, it’s important to realize that it still represents less than 3 percent of the patients with sleep apnea. The study compared 1,411 patients with sleep apnea to a control base of 7,000 healthy adults.
There’s also a chance that the link goes both ways. The Berlin Sleep Questionnaire revealed that half of RA patients were at a high risk for sleep apnea compared to just 31 percent of non-RA patients. Among these patients, just 14 percent were already diagnosed with sleep apnea.
Sleep problems and RA
Sleep issues are not uncommon with RA patients. It’s important to diagnose and treat these problems as quickly as possible, because sleep issues will increase stress hormones in the body and cause more RA flare ups. Poor sleepers can also miss out on the growth hormones that are released when the body is in deep sleep. These hormones make crucial repairs to the body’s muscles, which can help minimize pain and discomfort for RA sufferers.
Pain relief is often the best solution for RA sufferers who are having trouble sleeping. However, if it’s not your pain that’s giving you a fitful night, or if you feel like you’re sleeping well but struggle with fatigue during the day, sleep apnea could be the cause.
If you suffer from sleep apnea, RA, or both, it’s worth discussing the possible connection between the two with your healthcare provider. Treating both problems jointly could give you increased relief from pain and fatigue.