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Understanding the Connection Between Sleep Apnea and Hearing Loss

Sleep apnea is a common disorder and, according to the National Sleep Foundation, it affects about 18 million Americans. Most of us think of sleep apnea as snoring with periodic gasping or “snorting” noises. This seemingly innocent annoyance interrupts sleep and can cause excessive daytime fatigue and other symptoms such as generalized inflammation, cardiovascular and endocrine problems. It can also affect the way a person thinks and even hears.

More than half of individuals with sleep apnea are overweight and most snore heavily. Untreated sleep apnea can lead to a variety of other health issues, including high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, diabetes and obesity. In addition to snoring and daytime sleepiness, symptoms of sleep apnea may include morning headaches, irritability, learning or memory problems, mood swings, dry throat upon waking in the morning and frequent urination at night.

Types of Apnea

There are two types of sleep apnea; obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the airway collapses or becomes obstructed. This is the most common type of apnea. Central sleep apnea occurs when your brain doesn’t send the right signals to your breathing muscles. Central sleep apnea is more common in individuals with certain medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure and stroke or sleeping at high altitude.

How Does Sleep Apnea Affect the Hearing Organ?

The organs in the inner ear are dependent on a healthy supply of blood flow. Good circulation nourishes delicate hair cells in the hearing organ or cochlea. These hair cells do not regenerate or re-grow so any damage to this part of the inner ear results in sensorineural hearing loss, the most common type of permanent hearing loss.

Hearing health professionals know that circulatory issues can cause hearing loss. Research indicates that people with heart disease are 50% more likely to have hearing impairment. According to the American Diabetes Association, patients with diabetes are twice as likely to have hearing loss as those individuals who do not. Smokers are more likely to develop hearing loss because of the depleted oxygen levels in the inner ear. Untreated high blood pressure can also contribute to hearing loss and tinnitus, also known as ringing in the ears.

Why the connection with sleep apnea? Researchers think inflammation in blood vessels could be to blame, since the ear would be prone to that kind of damage. Sleep apnea causes major inflammation in the bloodstream and brain, which promotes vascular complications. People with sleep apnea have thicker blood and their blood clots more readily.

Sleep Apnea and Sudden Hearing Loss

The results published in Archives of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery showed that men who experienced sudden deafness were 48% more likely to have previously been diagnosed with sleep apnea. According to the researchers, this shows a clear link between the two disorders. The sudden hearing loss or deafness is typically in one ear and, if treated promptly, is regained in a period of two to three weeks.

Scientists do not yet understand the link between hearing loss and sleep problems. They have discovered that sleeping less – just over two nights – can harm blood vessel function. Your ears depend upon the blood that circulates in your body. The slowing of blood flow means fewer nutrients to the ear and this can lead to atrophy and destruction of the auditory hair cells. But this is a theory that has yet to be proven conclusively.

Treating Sleep Apnea

If you suspect you have sleep apnea, schedule an appointment with your physician. Before you go to the appointment, write down notes to help you remember when you think the sleeping issues started and how often you have difficulty sleeping. Mention any over-the-counter or prescription medications you may have tried to help your sleep quality. Discuss any lifestyle changes you may have already implemented that do not appear to help with sleep.

Your physician may recommend changes such as weight loss, smoking cessation, use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine or oral breathing devices to wear at night, medicine to help you stay awake during the day, and/or surgery to correct a blockage. This treatment will become a partnership of management between you and your physician. Ask to have your hearing tested even if you are not currently experiencing hearing difficulty. A baseline audiogram is important to help your physician monitor any changes in your hearing sensitivity over time. FBN

By Karon Lynn

Trinity Hearing Center is located at 1330 N. Rim Dr., Suite B in Flagstaff. For more information, visit the website at TrinityHearing.net. Karon Lynn is a doctor of audiology with 30 years of experience working with hearing impaired individuals. Dr. Lynn may be reached at 928-522-0500 or at audio@trinityhearing.net.

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