Sleep Disorders and Spinal Injuries: Awareness is a Key Factor

A back injury can be a painful and debilitating impairment. But there can be unforeseen complications other than the pain and impairment from the spinal injury itself. A common side effect of a back injury is having trouble sleeping. In fact, sleep disorders and spinal injuries seem to go hand-in-hand as roughly 90% of people with spinal injuries complain about sleep problems. Of course, we know that pain itself, regardless of the source, can cause restless nights. However, you may not be aware that almost 75% of those who have these sleep issues, also experience trouble breathing during sleep.

Sleep apnea is becoming increasingly understood as a common problem for those with serious back injuries. When a person has sleep apnea symptoms, their sleep is interrupted all night by these temporary pauses in breathing. This is caused from one of three different kinds of sleep apnea; the most common of these causes is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), in which the airways narrow or collapse. (Or something blocks most, or all, of the air from coming in or out during sleep). OSA, then, makes up roughly 85% of the cases of sleep apnea. A very rare version of sleep apnea is central sleep apnea (CSA). With this type, the respiratory system slows down, or even stops sporadically, throughout the night. This usually happens after a stroke or heart attack, but it is, thankfully, extremely rare. The last type is called mixed or complex sleep apnea, which is a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea. This constitutes roughly 15% of the cases of sleep apnea.

Treating the condition is vital, and should be undertaken before lack of sleep begins to affect overall health. The problem is many people don’t know they have sleep apnea. The pauses in breathing bring them out of sleep just long enough to get them breathing again and they have no idea that they are waking up dozens of times every night. Often, the sufferer of sleep apnea just wakes up tired and has no idea why leading to the most common side effect of sleep apnea—daytime tiredness.

Being aware that people with spinal injuries also frequently suffer from sleep apnea is important. Anyone with a spinal injury should be tested for sleep apnea, especially if they constantly feel tired after a full night’s rest.

Anyone dealing with a spinal injury has enough on their plate and certainly doesn’t need to experience the debilitating effects of not getting enough sleep, too. Fortunately, sleep apnea is treatable. Moreover, the earlier the condition is treated, the less of a chance there is that it will result in long term effects. Some common treatments for sleep apnea include losing weight, sleeping on one’s side instead of the back, and avoiding alcohol or certain medications before turning in for the evening.

Sleep disorders and spinal injuries can also be, in a certain sense, ‘ignored’ by a patient who does not realize that their sleep disorder is caused by the injury. This hypothetical patient might not inform their physician treating the back injury that they are also having trouble sleeping, because they have not linked the two problems. Conversely, another patient might make the link between their sleep problems and their injury. However, they then decide that their sleep disorder is just something they will have to ‘deal with’ until they heal. It is important to recognize that even if the cause of the sleep disorder is a spinal injury, the sleep disorder can be treated. So, if you or a loved one has suffered a spinal injury, be sure to talk to your physician about sleep apnea. After all, getting a good night’s sleep is necessary for everyone’s health, especially someone recovering from a serious injury.