Anyone with chronic sinus trouble will tell you how it causes problems with breathing and sleep. Anyone can also tell you that much research has been done about improving sinus problems. But what about those with both sleep apnea and sinus problems? In a recent study, published in the JAMA Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery, researchers have found that surgery may help those with chronic sinus problems so that they can breathe easier, better, and even improve the lives of those with the sleep-related condition called obstructive sleep apnea.

In the study, researchers found 15% of people with chronic sinus problems also had the sleep disorder obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). And those who had surgery for clearing the sinuses reported a better quality of life and improved sleep, regardless of whether or not they had a sleep disorder. Of course, this is not surprising for sinusitis treatment. Improved quality of life is the purpose of many surgeries for sinusitis. However, what’s important about this new study is that patients with both sinusitis and OSA have a substantially reduced quality of life, but those with both conditions had dramatic improvements in quality of life following surgery.

OSA is a condition that causes people to stop breathing hundreds of times during sleep throughout the night. For those with OSA, the tongue and other structures might relax too much, blocking the airway and preventing breathing. There are several signs of OSA. Here are the most common ones: Snoring, choking and gasping for air, and daytime fatigue.

Dr. Jordan Josephson, an ENT specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, says, “Sinus and nasal problems often are part of the problem leading to snoring and sleep apnea, and are often overlooked and left untreated.” Josephson was not involved in the current study, but was a reviewer of it. He added that patients with sinus problems and nasal breathing problems “should all be evaluated for snoring and sleep apnea.”

For the study, researchers studied 400 patients who underwent surgery for chronic sinus problems. They then checked the outcomes of those with both chronic sinus problems and OSA. Of this group, sixty had OSA, and following surgery these patients had improved psychologically and with their sleep problems.

The link between OSA and chronic sinus problems is still inconclusive, but might much evidence suggests how air passages through the nose and airways and how sleep affects the body’s ability to manage infection have a lot to do with both conditions.

Peter Fotinakes, a neurologist and sleep disorders specialist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., has one theory for the two conditions overlapping, “When we’re asleep, we prefer to breathe through our noses.” He further added, “When we can’t, we open our mouth to breathe, and when you open your mouth, it sets your tongue free.” That freed-up tongue, he said, can fall back into the airway, blocking it.

Does this mean anyone with a chronic stuffy nose and fatigue should go straight for sinus surgery? Of course, not. Patients should try noninvasive measures first, such as medication before surgery. But many patients have experienced tremendous benefits in both disease severity and overall quality of life after sinus surgery. Seeing an board-certified ENT specialist is in your best interest if you’re looking for solutions to your chronic sinusitis and you suspect a sleeping disorder.

No one likes the prospects of surgery, but the good news is that newer surgical techniques can be performed on an outpatient basis without general anesthesia with minimal discomfort and most patients can go back to work the next day. This is welcome news for those suffering from both chronic sinus problems and sleep apnea.