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New Cause Found for Sleep Apnea

A study conducted by sleep researchers from the University of Toronto has identified an additional mechanism in the sleep disorder known a obstructive sleep apnea, but they call their findings “modest,” and do not believe that they are cause for a change in treatment protocols.

Dr. T. Douglas Bradley and his colleagues have just published a report in Sleep Medicine in which they describe their discovery that using compression stocking during daytime hours can make a slight improvement in patients’ sleep apnea symptoms. Their study was small, and involved just 45 sleep apnea patients. Half of the group wore the stockings during the day for two weeks, while the other group did not wear them. Following the two week period it was found that the group who wore the stockings experienced a 27 percent decrease in the frequency of their apnea episodes. The researchers indicated that this reduction dropped the apnea “from the severe to the moderate range.”

Obstructive sleep apnea is a chronic sleep disorder that is estimated to impact 12 million Americans. It is a condition in which the airway becomes blocked during sleep, causing repeated episodes in which the patient goes for long periods without air and then awakens suddenly in a paroxysm of gasping. The episodes are frightening to witness, though in most cases the sufferer is unaware that they are going through this experience — some patients have apneas hundreds of times per night. The physiological impact raises the risk of a number of related health conditions, including high blood pressure, risk of stroke, cardiovascular problems, obesity and depression. Patients generally experience daytime drowsiness. The condition cannot be cured, but the use of a device called a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine has shown to be the most effective treatment.

While CPAP improves patients’ overall health and eliminates daytime sleepiness, that was not the case for the use of the compression stockings. The researchers believe that their study shows that one of the reasons that apnea occurs may be the flow of fluid from the legs into the neck, thus creating a restriction in the amount of oxygen that the patients are able to take in. Use of the stockings reduces the number of incidents by preventing excess fluid from accumulating.

According to Bradley, “Getting rid of excess fluid is one approach of treating sleep apnea,” but experts do not believe that it is a game changer as much as an indication of another contributing mechanism of the disorder. Dr. Jafari Behrouz of the University of California, Irvine said, “At this point I do not recommend stockings to treat sleep apnea.” Most patients that are prescribed the use of compression stockings are being treated for varicose veins or to prevent blood clots.

According to Dr. Behrouz, who was not involved in the study, “The patient and physician can discuss what’s the best treatment for them. For the majority of patients, the best treatment still is the CPAP machine.”

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