Can sleep apnea cause pain? Ask anyone who suffers from pain conditions or sleep apnea, and the answer to that question is most often “yes!” This post discusses the causes of pain from sleep apnea, and more.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a type of sleep-disordered breathing that affects an estimated 25 million people in the U.S.
Of the three types of sleep apnea, the most common is obstructive sleep apnea. This occurs when the back of the throat and tongue relaxes back and down during sleep, blocking the airway. The sleeper’s brain recognizes the lack of oxygen and the person reflexively wakes up with a gasping intake of breath.
The most common sleep apnea symptoms include daytime sleepiness and difficulty concentrating. There is another symptom that many people may not expect: pain.
Can sleep apnea cause pain?
This means that one can exacerbate the other, and they may both contribute to the development of the other. This is due to a variety of factors and contributing causes.
What causes pain after sleep apnea?
Daytime pain after a night of sleep apnea symptoms is very common.
Chronic pain can lead to poor sleep and poor sleep can actually intensify chronic pain. Some of these reasons are straightforward. We all know the experience of an awkward position in sleep causing a few aches and pains the next day, and the fatigue that comes with often makes it feel worse.
But there is research that sleep apnea and pain are more deeply intertwined than that.
One of the features of sleep apnea is low oxygen levels in the blood. The body periodically stops breathing, causing carbon dioxide to remain in the lungs where it eventually enters the bloodstream.
After a full night of this type of breathing, carbon dioxide in the blood is at high enough levels to cause head pain. One study found that nearly 50% of sleep apnea patients experienced a sleep apnea headache, and another found a slight increase in tension headaches in sleep apnea patients (as opposed to those without sleep apnea).
Back pain affects an estimated 80% of the U.S. population at some point in their lives. People who suffer from chronic back pain struggle to find comfort at night, and the position that might bring them the most comfort (flat on their back) is the one that can lead to the most sleep apnea symptoms at night.
Research is also finding that back pain and sleep apnea commonly appear together, with a variety of consequences and risk factors for each.
- Poor sleep makes people feel pain more keenly the next day
- Obesity is correlated with an increase in both sleep apnea and lower back pain
- Poor sleep makes pain medications less effective
It may seem odd that sleep apnea and chest pain are related, but one study found that in some cases, obstructive sleep apnea symptoms simulated angina, arrhythmia, or even heart failure.
The study was small, but the results pointed towards the importance of investigating the possibility of sleep apnea in patients with chest pain.
Joint pain, especially joint pain from rheumatoid arthritis, leads to an increased risk of sleep apnea. One of the potential reasons is the presence of excessive cytokines, markers that are associated with increased inflammation and that act as a crucial part of sleep regulation.
Other factors that may cause sleep apnea and joint pain relate to shared risk factors that include obesity and structural abnormalities that both conditions share.
Perhaps the strongest and most studied connection of pain to poor sleep is between sleep apnea and full-body muscular pain.
For example, various studies indicate that sleep apnea and fibromyalgia are related, including:
- A 2015 study that found the incidence of widespread pain in over 55% of patients with obstructive sleep apnea (as compared to a rate between eight and 12% in those without sleep apnea)
- In 2019, a review of literature that found an overlap between sleep apnea and fibromyalgia was high (but varies depending on who was running diagnostics)
Even before these studies, the connection was so clear that in 2010, sleep apnea was added to the diagnostic criteria for fibromyalgia.
Get help with sleep apnea treatments
Even as sleep apnea and pain are closely related, treatments for one can help the other. At AZ Dentist, we believe in cutting edge approaches to treating sleep apnea and combine them with lifestyle changes that can improve your overall health.
Two of the biggest lifestyle changes that can help with both pain and sleep apnea include:
- Maintaining a healthy body weight: Exercise and a healthy diet are first-line treatment recommendations for both sleep apnea and pain conditions
- Create a mindfulness practice: Mindfulness meditation can minimize the impact of pain on your life and can help promote restful sleep
Beyond lifestyle changes, the most common treatment for severe sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. A mask over your mouth, nose, or both, delivers a continuous stream of air to the back of your throat to keep the airway open. An alternative to the CPAP, a BIPAP machine offers two types of pressure for those who struggle with the continual pressure of air.
Even with the BIPAP alternative, however, many people struggle to comply with CPAP treatment. Light sleepers find the noise unbearable, and the mask may be uncomfortable.
More seriously, sleep apnea patients who use CPAP machines are at a greater risk for pneumonia. Children and older adults are at greater risks for pneumonia complications, with mortality rates as high as 20%. Pneumothorax, or a collapsed lung, is also a rare but potentially serious side effect of CPAP use, especially at higher pressures.
Oral appliance therapy
Fortunately, a sleep apnea dental device is a more comfortable, quiet, and portable option. At AZ Dentist, we fit each sleep apnea device individually for maximum comfort and better results. We do this in a number of steps.
First, we use a pharengometer, a machine that captures sound wave reflections, to measure where your jaw needs to be positioned to open your airways at night. We make a custom dental appliance for you to use based on these measurements. Our team will teach you a number of minor movements you can do to minimize or avoid jaw pain all together while using this device.
During your annual follow-up visits, we test that the appliance is working and that it’s not having any detrimental effects on your teeth or jaw. With a more thorough treatment approach, along with lifestyle modifications, our team can help you reduce the pain and other symptoms of sleep apnea in your life.
If pain keeps you up at night, give AZ Dentist a call. We can help you manage your sleep apnea to decrease your pain.