Suffocating Dreams: Spinal Cord Injuries Intensify Sleep Apnea

Recovering from a spinal cord injury can be an arduous process resulting in daily anxiety, stress, and physical exhaustion. Sleep becomes a welcome relief from these pressures, and it allows spinal cord injury (SCI) victims a time to relax and escape their daily struggles. However, some SCI victims may suffer from sleep apnea, which disrupts this much-needed sleep and also increases their chances of cardiovascular death.

A new study, conducted at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center and Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, suggests that certain spinal cord injuries—specifically injuries to the neck, upper spine, or thoracic area—can cause or intensify sleep apnea. Sleep apnea occurs when the body stops breathing regularly while asleep, generally causing disruption in sleep patterns. There are two common forms:

  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Airways become blocked (obstructed) or collapse during sleep, preventing the necessary airflow for regular breathing.
  • Central Sleep Apnea: The brain fails to properly send signals to the muscles that control breathing, disrupting normal breathing patterns. This form of apnea is often seen in patients with cervical or neck spinal cord injuries.

The study found that 77 percent of SCI participants suffered breathing problems while sleeping, and 92 percent suffered poor sleep quality. They also found that subjects suffered from both obstructive and central sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea, no matter which type you may have, is extremely serious. Not only can it disrupt REM cycles—the period of sleep where you dream and process memories—but it can cause catastrophic stress to your heart as well, leading to heart attacks or even death from lack of oxygen.

Don’t let your dreams suffocate you; if you have an SCI, you should be aware of your sleep patterns and undergo a comprehensive sleep study. You can then review your treatment options, such as a CPAP machine that will monitor your breathing and provide you with continuous air pressure while you sleep, preventing the apnea from occurring.


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