Alaska Sleep Education Center

Does Sleep Apnea Impact Pain Severity?

Posted by Jennifer Hines

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on Nov 29, 2020 12:05:00 PM

Young woman sitting on the bed with pain in neck-1

Sleep specialists might want to take a closer look at the connections between obstructive sleep apnea, chronic pain, and reported pain intensity in younger patients. Young adults with a diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are more likely to report moderate to severe pain intensity, compared with their peers who do not have the diagnosis, results from a large cross-sectional analysis of veterans showed.

"Because of the high burden of chronic pain conditions in younger adults, this study highlights the need to understand the impact of OSA diagnosis and treatment on pain intensity," researchers led by Wardah Athar, a graduate student at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., and Lori A. Bastian, MD, MPH, a professor of internal medicine at Yale, wrote in an article published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society. "This understanding would then help inform the development of interventions to promote screening for OSA among young adults with chronic pain and pain management among those with diagnosed OSA."

In an effort to assess whether young adults with diagnosed OSA are more likely to report higher pain intensity, compared with those without OSA, the researchers drew from a sample of 858,226 veterans from Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn who had at least one visit to a VA clinic between 2001 and 2014. They used ICD-9 codes to identify OSA and assessed self-reported responses to pain measures on a 0-10 numeric scale which were recorded in each veteran's EMR. Next, they averaged pain intensity responses over a 12-month period and categorized them as none (0), mild (1-3), and moderate/severe (4–10). Covariates included age, sex, education, race, mental health diagnoses, headache diagnoses, pain diagnoses, hypertension, diabetes, body mass index, and smoking status. The researchers used multivariate logistic regression models and multiple imputation to generate values for missing variables.

The mean age of the patients was 30 years, 64% were White, 17% were Black, 12% were Hispanic, and remainder were other/unknown race/ethnicity. Ninety percent were male, and 20% had greater than a high school education. Of the 858,226 patients, 91,244 (11%) had a diagnosis of OSA. Compared with patients who had no diagnosis of OSA, the unadjusted odds of reporting moderate/severe pain was 48% higher among those with OSA (odds ratio 1.48; P < .0001). After the researchers adjusted for all covariates in the model, the association between OSA and moderate/severe pain remained significant though attenuated, with an adjusted odds ratio of 1.09 (P < .0001).

Several characteristics were different between those who had a diagnosis of OSA and those who did not, including age (a mean of 36 vs. 26 years, respectively) and having the following diagnoses: pain (36% vs. 16%), headache (28% vs. 14%), diabetes (12% vs. 2%), hypertension (40% vs. 12%), and a body mass index of 30 kg/m2 or greater (69% vs. 35%). Certain psychiatric disorders were also common among patients with OSA, including major depressive disorder (20% vs. 10%), posttraumatic stress disorder (50% vs. 30%), and substance use disorder (26% vs. 17%). Patients with OSA were also more likely to have been prescribed benzodiazepines or opioids within 90 days of their OSA diagnosis. Although men were more likely to have a diagnosis of OSA, no differences related to sex in the association of OSA and pain were observed in sex-based stratified analyses.

"Based on these results, we suggest more thorough and more frequent pain intensity screening in patients with OSA, particularly in those patients who are younger than 60 years old without significant comorbid illness," the researchers concluded. "Furthermore, we also recommend increased OSA screening for patients with moderate/severe pain intensity and pain diagnoses." One tool they recommend is the STOP-Bang (Snoring, Tiredness, Observed Apnea, Blood Pressure, Body Mass Index, Age, Neck Circumference, and Gender) questionnaire, which has been validated in multiple settings.

What those in pain can do to promote better sleep

Quality sleep is often an indicator of one's overall health and quality of life. Therefore it is important for those with, and even without, pain to make sleep a priority.

Some of the things that nearly everybody should attempt is to practice better sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is a set of practices and habits that help promote better sleep. They include sleep-friendly things like getting exercise, exposing oneself to light at certain times of the day, eating sleep promoting foods, practicing relaxation techniques before bed, and making sure that the sleep environment is aimed at promoting quality sleep.

Another important thing to do is to make sure that other factors such as sleep disoders (including sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and others) aren't also contributing to sleep loss. Your doctor may recommend having a sleep study performed to rule out any number of sleep disorders that may be contributing to your sleep loss, before concluding that the pain is solely responsible for your sleep problems.

The reason many doctors will first want to address the sleep environment and possible sleep disorders as contributing to sleep loss is because sleep medications can often interact with pain medications in a potentially dangerous way. In many cases it is much more likely that a doctor will recommend changing your sleep habits before prescribing more medications.

Simply having a higher motivation to make sleep a priority (even for those in pain) can increase the quantity and quality of sleep. The best thing a person can do that is having sleep troubles is to take control of their sleep by giving it precedence in their life.

If you live in Alaska and your doctor recommends that you have a sleep study to rule out sleep disorders contact the Alaska Sleep Clinic to receive a free 10-minute phone consultation with a sleep professional.

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Topics: sleep problems, pain, backpain

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