Can Traumatic Brain Injury Cause Sleep Apnea? (Diagnosis & Treatment)

woman distressed from sleep apnea after TBI

Can traumatic brain injury cause sleep apnea? How does sleep apnea affect TBI recovery?

To help you better understand this TBI sleep disorder, we’re answering all the questions you might have about sleep apnea and brain injury.

We’ll also show you how to recognize sleep apnea and discuss some of the best treatments for it.

Let’s get started!

What Is Sleep Apnea?

man snoring because he has sleep apnea caused by brain injury

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that causes a person to have difficulty breathing while they sleep.

There are two main types of sleep apnea you can experience after brain injury.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea. This is where the airways become blocked, usually by the person’s tongue.
  • Central sleep apnea. This is where the mechanisms that control breathing malfunction, so that the person actually stops breathing.

Can Traumatic Brain Injury Cause Sleep Apnea?

Yes. Damage to the brainstem can impact automatic functions such as breathing, which will cause you to experience central sleep apnea.

Since brain injury also affects your muscle control, it can weaken your tongue and throat muscles. This can cause your soft palate to lower while you sleep, blocking your airways.

Some pain medications that brain injury patients take can also suppress breathing.

How Does Sleep Apnea Affect Brain Injury Recovery?

Sleep apnea keeps you from having a deep, restful sleep, which is when the brain does most of its healing work. This will severely hamper your recovery.

Lack of sleep also leads to serious health problems such as a weakened immune system and weight gain.

What’s really dangerous for people with brain injuries is the oxygen deprivation sleep apnea causes.

If sleep apnea is left untreated for too long, it can destroy brain cells and cause cognitive decline. It can also trigger anxiety and depression.

Unfortunately, although sleep apnea is a known side effect of brain injury, it’s too often overlooked during treatment. Many patients may notice their brain injury symptoms getting worse, but have no idea that it is their sleep apnea causing them problems.

That’s why it’s so important to understand the signs of sleep apnea, so you can get it under control as soon as possible.

How Do You Know If You Have Sleep Apnea?

doctor talking to patient about sleep apnea

It can be hard to recognize whether you have sleep apnea, especially if the apnea is only partially affecting your breathing.

Plus, memory problems can make you forget the times you woke up during the night, which will cause you to think you’re getting a good night’s sleep when in fact you aren’t.

So how can you know if you have sleep apnea or not?

You might have sleep apnea if you:

  • wake up with a sore or dry throat
  • breathe through your mouth
  • snore loudly
  • wake up with a headache
  • are tired throughout the day
  • experience mood swings or depression
  • wake up gasping for air

How Do Doctors Diagnose Sleep Apnea?

Doctors can diagnose you with sleep apnea using a polysomnograph, a.k.a. a sleep study.

During a sleep study, the sleep specialist will monitor your brain waves and respiratory rate to see what kind of sleep you are getting. They also measure your blood oxygen level to make sure you are getting enough oxygen to your brain.

A sleep study is the most surefire way to know if you have sleep apnea or not, so if you have any doubts, ask your doctor to schedule one for you.

How to Treat Sleep Apnea

CPAP machine for sleep apnea after brain injury

There are many ways to treat sleep apnea, depending on what is causing the problem and how severe it is.

Sometimes all you need to do is start sleeping on your side. This works well for mild sleep apnea that is caused by your tongue blocking your airways. There are also dental devices that can help keep your airways open during sleep.

The most common treatment for sleep apnea is a device called a CPAP. With a CPAP, you wear a mask over your nose or mouth while you sleep. The mask is hooked up to a machine that blows a continuous stream of air.

The air flow keeps your airways open and helps your body remember to breathe while you sleep.

Finally, since some types of sleep apnea are caused by a weak soft palate or tongue, certain speech therapy exercises can be used to treat sleep apnea.

Here a few exercises that will strengthen your soft palate:

  • Hum. Hum for ten seconds, blow your cheeks out, then hum again.
  • Make an “E” sound. Say any word or letter that produces an E sound. Hold the E sound for a few seconds at a time.
  • Yawn. Yawning lifts your soft palate up. Try yawning while saying “aw.”
  • Suck a straw. Sucking also lifts your palate. Try to suck through a curly straw to really challenge your soft palate muscles.

If you can strengthen your soft palate, you should notice your sleep apnea improve along with it.

TBI and Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a serious condition that can have a devastating impact on TBI survivors. Luckily, however, it’s easily treated.

If you suspect you might have sleep apnea, schedule an appointment with a sleep specialist right away. They can help you figure out what type of sleep apnea you have and suggest the most effective treatment options.

The sooner you get your apnea under control, the sooner you can start getting the restful sleep you need to help your brain recover.