Sleep Apnea and Seizures

A very serious sleep condition that is related to a myriad of other illnesses and health problems that may even be life-threatening, sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed for many years. Growing in the number of Americans affected over recent years, sleep apnea is a condition in which men are diagnosed significantly more often than women. Sleep apnea is not only dangerous on its own, it has also been connected to heart disease, obesity, stroke, metabolic syndrome, atrial fibrillation, and even seizures.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which the affected person stops breathing for extended periods of time (for many seconds, up to a minute) at various intervals during sleep. This is most commonly caused by the physical blockage of airways in the neck and throat, referred to as Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). This may have to do with extra skin or fat in the neck, allergies that narrow airways, deviated septum, an enlarged tongue, swollen adenoids or tonsils (usually in children), or other airway blockages. Sleep apnea may also be caused by a neurological problem that does not appropriately communicate to the respiratory system that it should be breathing. This is referred to as Central Sleep Apnea (CSA).

Some people have difficulty determining if they have sleep apnea because many of the symptoms happen while they are sleeping so they are not aware of it. This is especially true with loud snoring and pauses in breathing. Sometimes symptoms of sleep apnea are first noticed by a family member or roommate who notices signs related to this condition.

Symptoms and Signs of Sleep Apnea include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Waking up with headaches
  • Occasionally waking up with a sensation of choking or gasping for air
  • Silent pauses in breathing
  • Waking up with a very sore, dry throat
  • Daytime fatigue or sleepiness and falling asleep during activity such as driving
  • Insomnia, inability to sleep well all night long, or waking up feeling tired
  • Inability to concentrate and poor work performance
  • Mood changes, irritability, trouble with relationships
  • Decreased libido
  • Waking up often to go to the bathroom
  • High blood pressure

Can Sleep Apnea Cause Seizures?

Many studies have brought to light the concept that obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) could, in fact, contribute to seizures. In fact, one study performed in 2000, published by the University of Michigan Health System, found that as many as 1/3 of people with epileptic-type seizures may also be living with undiagnosed sleep apnea.

Another more recent study published in 2013 and performed in Australia, discovered that approximately 25% of people with epileptic seizures experienced some sort of sleep-disordered breathing, which is more than in the general population throughout the world. A different article published in Epilepsia magazine in 2003 noted that individuals who are treated with anti-seizure drugs may be at risk for weight gain and reduced muscle tone, both of which are known to be causal factors related to the presence of obstructive sleep apnea.

Data related to central sleep apnea (CSA) and seizures is a bit more difficult to come by. However, one data analysis performed on patients treated at Boston University Sleep Disorder Center between 2004 and 2011 showed a link between CSA and focal seizures, with nearly 2/3 of the CSA patients experiencing focal seizures.

Even people with seizures who do not display classic symptoms of sleep apnea may find that their health is significantly impacted by this sleep disorder. In one case study, a man who had seizures as often as once a day did not exhibit obvious symptoms associated with sleep apnea was given a sleep study and found to have moderate sleep apnea. He was treated with CPAP machine and after ten years is completely free of epileptic seizures, living a normal lifestyle with his family.

Sleep Apnea, Seizures and Treatment

Some people who suffer from sleep apnea and seizures have experienced relief from their symptoms through treatment using Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine. This machine is attached to the face through tubes and a mask, and essentially provides a flow of air into the body in order to keep the airways open.

Another effective treatments for sleep apnea and seizures may include lifestyle modifications including diet change and exercise that lead to weight loss. This is because many people’s sleep apnea is related to obesity or being overweight. Positional therapy (sleeping on the side or stomach) may also be effective in mitigating the problems related to sleep apnea. Another therapy used for some people who have sleep apnea is related to a dental appliance that keeps an enlarged tongue from slipping into the back of the throat and blocking the airways.

Of course, seizures and sleep apnea are both very dangerous conditions that may even lead to premature death if they are left untreated. However, many people have found hope in the fact that their number of seizures have significantly decreased when they are treated for sleep apnea. This leads many medical professionals to believe that providing the brain with a proper amount of oxygen can bring about a healing effect for seizures as well.

In addition, the fact that a person receiving treatment for sleep apnea is not as sleep-deprived means that the brain functions better and is less likely to bring about seizures. A healthy neurological system and healthy cardiac system are both benefits that can result from treating sleep apnea. Some doctors have even been able to reduce epilepsy medication amounts in certain patients who have been effectively treated for sleep apnea with CPAP, weight loss, and other commonly used sleep apnea therapies.


If you are a person who is affected by epileptic-type seizures as well as sleep apnea, it is critical that you contact a medical professional right away in order to get a diagnosis. Once you’ve been diagnosed with a sleep study and neurological tests for seizures, your doctor will guide you through the process of discovering the best treatment for your type of disorder. This treatment can bring about not only reduction in seizures, increase and healthy sleep patterns, but also for many people it brings about a completely new lease on life!

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