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Sleep Apnea and PTSD


Updated December 16, 2010

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If you have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and have difficulty sleeping, then it is possible that you suffer from sleep apnea. A 2010 study by researchers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., looked at sleep problems among 80 OEF/OIF soldiers returning from combat who were diagnosed with PTSD. Almost all of them said that they had problems sleeping, and almost two-thirds were found to suffer from sleep apnea.

This finding is not surprising given that it is very common for people with a diagnosis of PTSD to experience some type of problem sleeping. In fact, difficulty falling and/or staying asleep is considered one of the hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD, and studies have found that sleep problems are one of the most commonly reported symptoms reported by people with PTSD.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a fairly common sleep disorder where a person may have one or more brief (a few seconds to minutes) pauses in their breathing or experience shallow breathing while sleeping. Although these pauses may be brief, they can occur frequently during the night. Normal breathing eventually starts up again; however, these pauses can greatly disrupt a person's sleep. In addition, these pauses in breathing can prevent someone from going into a deep sleep, resulting in sleep that is not satisfying or restorative.

Many people have sleep apnea but don't know it. It can often go undiagnosed. Most people figure out they have it from a bed partner who first notices the symptoms of sleep apnea.

Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

There are several tell-tale signs of sleep apnea:

  • Loud and persistent snoring
  • Choking or gasping for air at night
  • Feeling tired and sleepy during the day
  • Headaches, especially in the morning
  • Concentration or memory problems
  • Being jarred out of sleep at night due to lack of air

Why Does Sleep Apnea Develop?

There are a number of causes of sleep apnea.

  • A person's throat muscles and tongue may become more relaxed than normal during sleep, preventing the airway from staying open.
  • A person with sleep apnea may also have a tongue and tonsils that are larger compared to the opening into their airway.
  • People who are overweight or obese are also at risk for sleep apnea, as they may develop a thicker airway wall due to extra fat tissue.
  • The shape of a person's head and neck may result in a smaller airway.
  • Aging may also increase risk for sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is also more common in men than women, as well as in racial/ethnic minority populations. There may also be a genetic basis to sleep apnea. If someone in your family has sleep apnea, you are at greater risk for developing it as well. Sleep apnea has also been connected with a number of physical conditions and unhealthy behavior, including smoking, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Why people with PTSD might be more likely to develop sleep apnea has not been explored by researchers as of yet. However, people with PTSD do often show many of the risk factors for sleep apnea described above. People with PTSD may be more likely than people without PTSD to have high blood pressure, be overweight, smoke, and have diabetes or other physical health problems, and they are more likely to abuse alcohol. All of these factors may put people with PTSD at risk for developing sleep apnea.

Managing Your Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea can be successfully managed. The first step however is getting it diagnosed. You can learn more about sleep apnea and its treatment from Dr. Brandon Peters, About.com Guide to Sleep. There are also a number of easy things you can do to improve your sleep in general. Check out this article for some basic ways of improving your sleep quality when you have PTSD.


Harvey, A. G., Jones, C., & Schmidt, D. A. (2003). Sleep and posttraumatic stress disroder: A review. Clinical Psychology Review, 23, 377-407.

Orr, N., Carter, K., Collen, J. F., Hoffman, M., Holley, A. B., & Lettieri, C. J. (2010). Prevalence of sleep disroders among soldiers with combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. CHEST, 138, 704A.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health (August 2010). Sleep Apnea: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/SleepApnea/SleepApnea_WhatIs.html

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