What Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?
Apnea is a term that literally means "no breath." People who suffer sleep apnea stop breathing dozens or even hundreds of times each night, for as long as 60 seconds each time. In obstructive sleep apnea, narrowing of air passages through the mouth and throat cut off the flow of air until an explosive buildup of exhaled breath causes a snore or a snort, restoring breath for as much as a few minutes or as little as a few seconds.
Sleep apnea is usually very noticeable to sleeping partners, but someone who has sleep apnea may not even know he or she has the disease. The most common sign of sleep apnea is daytime fatigue. Lack of restful sleep can interfere with memory and increase the risk of daytime accidents and mood swings. The constant stress on breathing passages throughout the night can cause high blood pressure and accelerate kidney disease, and well as interrupt the hormonal processes that empower appetite control and fight weight gain.
The standard medical interventions for obstructive sleep apnea are surgery and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines. Surgery may or may not work long-term. It's painful, and, since it's not usually covered by insurance in the USA, expensive. The voice may be changed when part or all of the soft palate is removed to keep the airway to the throat open.
CPAP keeps air passages open with a constant flow of air into the throat. Like surgery, CPAP usually is not covered by insurance or medical assistance programs. The mask may be uncomfortable, and dry air can cause throat and sinus problems. About as many sleep apnea sufferers stop CPAP as continue after one year of use.
A Surprising Effect of Compression Stockings
Researchers at the Clinique La Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris have had many years successful experience in shrinking varicose veins in the legs with compression stockings. The stockings keep blood from pooling in weak veins in the legs, eventually allowing the veins to shrink back to normal size. Led by Italian researcher Dr. Stefania Redolfi, the venous insufficiency doctors devised an experiment to determine whether changing pressures in the veins in the legs might somehow improve pressures in the veins in the neck, reducing pressure on the windpipe and reducing the severity of sleep apnea.
The researchers recruited two groups of sleep apnea sufferers. Both groups were observed in the polysomnography clinic to determine baseline levels of the severity of apnea.
One group was instructed to wear the stockings for a week and then to come in for more testing. Then they went a week without wearing the stockings to see if any change persisted even without wearing the socks. The other group used compression stockings during the second week of the study.
The researchers found that wearing the stockings at night reduced swelling in leg veins by 62%, and swelling in neck veins (which were not directly treated, of course) by 60%. The reduction in the size of veins in the neck reduced the number of nightly incidents of sleep apnea by 36%--after using the stockings for just one week.
The researchers thought wearing stockings might help relieve obstructive sleep apnea. They did not expect that wearing stockings would help relieve obstructive sleep apnea in just one week.
How big a deal would it be to treat sleep apnea with compression stockings?
Stockings cost about 1% as much as surgery or CPAP. They don't cause infections of the throat and sinus, and there's no need to be concerned about the power going out during the night. And wearers of socks, unlike users of CPAP machines, can engage in intimate activities or simply turn over at will during the night.
Should you try to treat yourself with compression stockings?
It's important to know you have sleep apnea, and to know you don't have some vascular problem (like peripheral artery disease, which results in the exact opposite symptoms of venous insufficiency) that would be made worse by wearing stockings. See your doctor first. But ask if you should not try compression stockings before your try surgery or CPAP. You may get faster and more complete relief, at much lower cost with far fewer side effects.
American Thoracic Society (2011, August 4). Compression stockings may reduce obstructive sleep apnea in some patients. ScienceDaily, accessed 7 August 2011.