Most people understand the importance of a good night’s sleep. Just one night or two of disrupted sleep is nothing to worry about. But, if like 25 million other people in the U.S., you suffer from sleep apnea, think again. In addition to many other serious health risks, sleep apnea and eye problems actually go hand in hand too. This is what you need to know.
Why are sleep apnea and eye problems related?
Sleep apnea is one of the most common types of sleep disordered breathing. Although estimates hover around 25 million people in the U.S., the World Health Organization places that number much higher (one billion people worldwide and 100 million in the U.S.).
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. This occurs when the tongue and throat muscles relax down and back during sleep, blocking the sleeper’s airway. Once the brain recognizes the lack of oxygen, it jars the sleeper awake. These apneas (pauses in breath) can occur 30 or more times every hour, all night long.
Understandably, this constant lack of oxygen causes significant stress and strain on all of the systems of the body. This includes the blood vessels. The tiny blood vessels of the eyes are often affected by this strain. They may swell or become damaged over time, causing a number of different eye problems.
Traditionally, sleep apnea is managed with the following treatment options:
- Weight loss
- Stress management
- Improved sleep hygiene
- Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine
- Sleep apnea dental devices
A comprehensive approach to sleep apnea that includes lifestyle changes in addition to other treatment options usually produces the best results. CPAP machines, however, can also lead to some of the eye issues we discuss here.
An overview of sleep apnea and eye problems
Sleep apnea and eye problems range from symptoms that are mildly problematic to life-changing. These most common eye issues related to sleep apnea include:
- Dry, itchy eyes
- Floppy eye syndrome
- Eye twitch
- Nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy
- Diabetic macular edema
- Diabetic retinopathy
Let’s look at all of these in more detail.
Floppy eyelid syndrome
Floppy eyelid syndrome is just what it sounds like and can be an indication of a less common type of sleep apnea: central sleep apnea. For obese patients, floppy eyelid syndrome may also indicate obstructive sleep apnea. Eyelids may actually turn inside out during sleep, resulting in discomfort, watering, stickiness, and blurred vision.
The takeaway? Floppy eyelids can be a canary in the coal mine for sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea eye twitch
Also referred to as myokymia, eye twitching due to sleep apnea is a more benign condition.
Usually centered on the eyelid, myokymia goes away on its own, unless the cause is not removed. In this case, sleep apnea can make this condition become chronic.
Sleep apnea nystagmus
Although rapid-eye movement is a normal phase of sleep, sleep apnea nystagmus is like that phase on steroids. Movement of the eye increases so much that it can cause symptoms more in line with motion sickness than dreaming.
Nystagmus can also affect depth perception and balance.
Nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION)
One of the most frightening conditions associated with sleep apnea and eye problems is nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION).
Though fortunately rare, this condition is marked by a sudden loss of vision, usually upon awakening. This affects approximately 6,000 people in th