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What is the medical connection between sleep apnea and PTSD?

Sleep apnea and PTSD: Both are commonly diagnosed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), but did you know they’re actually medically connected? In order to submit a highly accurate VA disability claim, it’s vital to understand the relationship between these two conditions. In this blog, we’ll explain in detail what PTSD and sleep apnea are respectively, and how the two are connected.


Whether you’re a Veteran who is already diagnosed with PTSD or sleep apnea – or are just reading about them for the first time – you’re in the right place. Read on as we explain it all below.


What is PTSD?

The American Psychiatric Association defines PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) as a psychiatric disorder that occurs in people who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event. While it is a common condition for Veterans, especially after combat, it can occur in all different types of people – affecting an estimated 3.5 percent of adults in the U.S. yearly.


PTSD symptoms fall into the following 4 categories:

  • Intrusive and disturbing thoughts, flashbacks

  • Avoiding anything that reminds of the traumatic event

  • Memory and mood disturbances, potentially guilt or shame

  • Arousal and reactive symptoms, reckless behavior or failure to concentrate


What is sleep apnea?

In short, the Mayo Clinic defines sleep apnea as a “potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts.” It’s common, estimated to affect upwards of 18 million U.S. citizens – that’s roughly 1 in 15. For Veterans, that number is even higher. One study sampled 420 Veterans, finding that 52.1 percent of them screened positively for sleep apnea.


The following are the three main types of sleep apnea:


How PTSD and sleep apnea are medically connected

Over the years, researchers have discovered a medical link between PTSD and sleep apnea – especially among members of the Veteran population. The two conditions perpetuate each other, where disturbed sleep heightens symptoms of PTSD, and individuals with severe sleep apnea are more likely to suffer from strong PTSD symptoms.


One study revealed that Veterans are at a much higher risk for sleep apnea compared to the rest of the population. And since quality sleep is so important for mental health, a lack of it can dramatically worsen PTSD symptoms. When we don’t get enough REM sleep (rapid eye movement), it’s much harder for the brain to heal from complex traumas that cause PTSD. So, a medical cycle exists between the two conditions that can prolong symptoms of both.


On the bright side, studies have proven that Veterans who receive treatment for sleep apnea are likely to improve their PTSD symptoms as well. While it can be difficult to prove to the VA that your sleep apnea is a direct result of PTSD, the right disability claim and documentation can get you the benefits and support you deserve.


How does weight gain play a role as an intermediate step?

In case you’re unfamiliar: An “intermediate step” is a way for Veterans to connect an existing condition to another service-connected condition. Weight gain plays a role as an intermediate step between sleep apnea and PTSD, and should be taken into account when preparing documentation.


For example, if it weren’t for a service connected condition – such as PTSD – the Veteran would not likely have gained weight, which has now become a primary factor for worsening their sleep apnea. Studies have proven that mental health conditions can cause weight gain, whether from binge eating, a lack of motivation to exercise, or the body’s chemical response. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, can lead to weight gain.


Get support today

We’re here to help you get what you need from the VA to get relief from PTSD and sleep apnea. If you’re ready to simplify your VA disability claims, check out our free 60-minute educational webinar on simplifying claims here to become your own claims expert. You can also sign up for our course "Master Service Connection: A Course To Maximize Your VA Disability Rating FAST!".


Looking for a medical expert to write a Nexus Letter for your claim? Start here, or sign up for an expert chart review here.

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