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Did You Know Sleep Apnea Has Been Connected to Hearing Loss?

03/05/2015

More than 18 million Americans have sleep apnea with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. The obstructive form of this condition involves brief, repeated breathing interruptions caused when the throat muscles don’t keep your airway open as they should during sleep. A less common form is central sleep apnea, which causes the same interruptions but is the result of brain function that controls breathing during sleep malfunctioning. Both forms have been associated with several complications, ranging from the irritating (loud snoring) to health-threatening (hypertension). But it wasn’t until recent years that researchers began investigating the possibility of a link between sleep apnea and hearing loss. Their findings indicate a connection worth pursuing in future studies.

How sleep apnea can damage your hearing

A 2012 study found that men with sudden onset hearing loss were 48 percent more likely to have been diagnosed with sleep apnea than those without hearing loss (the association for women was statistically insignificant). Researchers speculated the common denominators were inflammation and blood vessel constriction, both commonly found in people with sleep apnea and known to contribute to hearing loss. The constant fluctuation of oxygen levels caused by sleep apnea are also believed to increase the likelihood of developing diabetes and high blood pressure —which are also known co-morbidities of hearing loss.

In 2014, a different team of researchers pursued the questions raised by this earlier study. They calculated that of the nearly 14,000 study participants, nearly 10 percent had at least moderate sleep apnea. This group had a 31 percent greater likelihood of developing high-frequency hearing loss , a 90 percent increased chance of developing low-frequency hearing loss, and 38 percent greater possibility of developing hearing loss at both the high and low frequencies than members of the control group. Again, researchers theorized that damage to the vascular system commonly suffered by those with sleep apnea was the likely culprit. Without adequate blood supply to the cochlea (inner ear), the delicate organs responsible for conducting and processing sound die and hearing is adversely affected. In addition, they theorized noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) may also be to blame, due to regular nightly exposure to loud snoring.

Whatever the exact cause-and-effect, a link between hearing loss and sleep apnea is difficult to deny. For the sake of your ears, as well as your overall health, symptoms of sleep apnea shouldn’t be ignored. It’s a good idea to talk to your general practitioner if you experience any of the following:

The most common treatment for sleep apnea after confirmation through a sleep study is use of a continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP) at night. A CPAP has a mask that fits over your nose or mouth and nose, and gently blows oxygen into your airway to keep it open. Other treatments include use of special dental appliances to reposition your tongue and jaw, or in cases where there is a physical obstruction, surgery may be recommended to clear your airway.

In order to reduce the likelihood of developing sleep apnea, or at least alleviate the symptoms if you already have it, you should consider making the following lifestyle changes:

It should be noted making these changes can also directly benefit your hearing. Additionally, if you have sleep apnea, make sure you schedule an appointment with a hearing care professional to have your hearing tested, so that any hearing loss can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

Do you or a loved one have sleep apnea? Discuss your experiences in the comments!

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