Link between sleep apnea and stroke
Douglas Franz, MD, is a stroke neurologist on staff at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix. His office can be reached at (602) 839-2586.
Question: I’ve been diagnosed with severe sleep apnea and was told that I may have unknowingly already suffered a stroke. How can that be?
Answer: Stroke doesn’t always leave obvious symptoms. In fact, small strokes that occur in certain parts of the brain may go completely unnoticed by both patients and physicians alike.
Commonly referred to as a “silent” stroke, it is estimated that approximately one in four people over age 60 may have experienced this type of stroke.
When detected, a silent stroke can be a warning that a patient is at risk of having another more serious stroke that, unfortunately, may leave very noticeable symptoms. The only way to know for certain whether you have suffered a silent stroke is through medical imaging, primarily magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), though some may be detected using computerized tomography (CT) scans of the brain.
A recent clinical trial in stroke/mini-stroke patients found that those with the worst sleep apnea were overwhelmingly likely to have suffered a stroke as evidenced through MRI.
Sleep apnea, which is characterized by difficulty breathing while sleeping, often leads to sleep deprivation and can worsen both high blood pressure and diabetes. When left untreated, sleep apnea places a huge stress on the body and, in turn, increases a patient’s risk for stroke along with other medical conditions.
Interestingly, there is another link between sleep apnea and stroke. In addition to being a likely contributor to silent stroke, sleep apnea may also be caused or made worse by stroke. Studies show that stroke patients whose sleep apnea is recognized and treated actually recover better.
The best way to safeguard against stroke is to discuss your individual risk factors with your physician to determine what, if any, tests and treatments are appropriate.