More and more soldiers from the first and second Iraq war are developing the disorder sleep apnea, and rightfully, scientists are wondering why. Some speculate that it has to do with the air they breathe in Iraq (and Afghanistan), but others are researching possible connections between sleep apnea and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as apnea is also common in Vietnam War veterans.
The connection between PTSD and troubled sleep is a commonly known symptom. Bringing the nightmares of war home makes sense, but how the stressful situation causes physical disruptions of REM sleep is less understood. Those with PTSD also have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep during the night.
Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common form of sleep apnea, causes breathing disturbances while asleep. In most cases apnea is caused by obstructions of the airway, either through blockage or collapse (particularly in obese sufferers). The momentary cessation of breathing interrupts sleep. Though these disruptions only last a second or two, they change the architecture of sleep for the whole night. Sufferers often wake up tired and feel the effects of lack of sleep the whole day.
Apnea interruptions are most common in REM sleep because muscles relax most during that phase. When neck muscles are relaxed the breathing passages are more likely to become obstructed or close.
In a recent study published in Psychosomatics, scientists found that many sufferers of PTSD found that their PTSD symptoms were much less common when their sleep apnea was treated. Though these few cases do not firmly link the two disorders, the research is a firm step in the direction of finding a treatment for our soldiers when they return from war.
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