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Common Sleep Apnea Treatment Lowers BP

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Jan. 23, 2002 -- Sleep apnea has come into the limelight in recent years, as research has shown that it causes much more than just snoring and sleepless nights. But a new study shows that treatment not only improves sleep but also lowers the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Sleep apnea affects more than 12 million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health. It occurs when airflow from the nose and mouth to the lungs is obstructed during sleep. Sleep apnea more commonly -- but not exclusively -- occurs in overweight people. It causes loud snoring, daytime sleepiness due to poor-quality sleep, and a fall in oxygen levels in the blood.

Sleep apnea also increases blood pressure and risk for heart disease and stroke. But doctors don't know whether treatment to improve sleep can improve other aspects of health as well.

The standard treatment is called nasal continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. A CPAP machine is worn during sleep and improves sleep quality and keeps oxygen levels normal. Researchers at the Oxford Sleep Unit in the U.K. wanted to see if CPAP also could lower blood pressure and lower the chance of heart disease and stroke.

They looked at 118 men with sleep apnea. Half were given CPAP at high enough doses to relieve the obstruction, but the other half received only low doses of CPAP.

The study results appear in the Jan. 19 issue of The Lancet.

Regular-dose CPAP lowered blood pressure by more than three points, but in the men who received the low-dose CPAP, their blood pressure actually rose during the one-month study. The benefit was seen during sleep and while awake.

Men with more-severe sleep apnea had the largest drop in blood pressure. And the biggest benefit was seen in men who were on blood pressure medication.

This is an important drop in blood pressure in people with sleep apnea, said senior researcher Robert Davies in a news release. He adds that through its effect on blood pressure, CPAP -- in addition to improving daytime sleepiness and quality of life -- can significantly drop the risk of stroke and heart disease.

Loud snoring and being sleepy during the day might not seem like too much of a problem. But considering that it's often associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, it could become a huge problem.

If it sounds like you or someone you love might have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor about the different treatments. Don't wait to get checked out -- putting it off could lead to further trouble down the road.

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