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Sleep Apnea and Your Eyes

Sleep apnea is a very common disorder. Apnea is a Greek word meaning “without breath”. Sleep Apnea causes you to stop breathing from a few seconds to minutes while you sleep. These breathing pauses often occur 5 to 30 times or more per hour. Normal breathing usually starts again, sometimes with a snort or choking sound. If you have sleep apnea, it disrupts your sleep at least three nights a week. You sleep poorly resulting in being tired during the day. Sometimes so tired that you can’t concentrate, work, or drive.

In patients with sleep apnea the soft tissue at the back of the roof of the mouth, called the soft palate, collapses during sleep. This partially obstructs the airway leading to lapses in breathing and decreased oxygen saturation in the blood. The brain senses this resulting in the body realizing it needs to take a breath, so people will gasp in an attempt to draw in more oxygen. In people who experience sleep apnea substantial snoring is almost universally present. A particularly distinctive symptom of sleep apnea is that the snoring will stop during prolonged periods of apnea.

Anyone can have sleep apnea, even children. But there are certain factors that may put you at risk for the condition they include: being overweight, smoking, high blood pressure, family history of sleep apnea, being male, being older than 65 and ingesting alcohol or sedatives before going to sleep.

Because sleep apnea leads to poor oxygen delivery to tissue and organs throughout the body, it is associated with a wide array of systemic conditions. Many people joke about how their loved one snores so loud they can’t sleep near them. Having untreated sleep apnea however is very dangerous and can result in serious cardiovascular and neurovascular conditions and even death. Fifty percent of heart disease patients have sleep apnea, 60% of stroke patients, 80% of patients with hard to control blood pressure and 70% of obese individuals.

In addition, eye disease associated with sleep apnea is significant. One of those diseases is Floppy Eyelid Syndrome (FES). This is a condition which can result in dry, often scratched or irritated eyes that are abraded during sleep because the eyelids can become everted with simple pressure from a pillow or the bed itself during sleep. The eyelids in FES are affected like the soft palate in the mouth such that the tissue becomes very flaccid. Other eye disease associated with sleep apnea include swelling of the optic nerves from increased pressure in the brain, glaucoma, strokes to the optic nerve, and miscellaneous retinal conditions all involving bleeding in the retina.

The primary objective in treating sleep apnea is to keep the airway open. This involves a device that will support the airway with a constant flow of air delivered through a face mask while sleeping. This device is called a continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP. Some individuals struggle with the device and have to try other methods of treatment including weight loss, surgery to remove excess tissue in the throat, positional sleep aids such as sleep shirts or wedges, or dental devices to move the lower jaw forward.

If you think you or your loved one may have sleep apnea, contact your family physician and ask about a sleep study to confirm the diagnosis. If you currently have sleep apnea, we encourage you to come in for an eye health evaluation to rule out ocular conditions associated with sleep apnea. Please call our office in Stillwater at 405-372-1715 to schedule today. We also invite you to visit our website at and like us on Facebook at Cockrell Eyecare Center!