Lou Gehrig, Head Trauma, & Sleep Apnea

A recent study showed that head trauma can sometimes mimic Lou Gehrg’s disease (or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – AML). This condition was named after the famous New York Yankees baseball player that develop muscle weakness, paralysis and eventually, death. The journalist displayed a vintage photo of Gehrig just after being knocked unconscious by a runaway pitch.

Knowing what we know about the effects of untreated obstructive sleep apnea, you could say that any type of brain injury, whether due to blunt head trauma, or small to large vascular events, cannot be good for memory, breathing, executive function, and motor control. But these are the same areas that are known to be affected when someone has untreated obstructive sleep apnea.

Chronic hypoxia causes inflammation and clotting in small vessels. One study showed that sleep apnea patients have much thicker blood, and that ear-brain reflexes where diminished, but improved after treatment. Hypoxic conditions in mice have been even shown to produce amyloid plaques—the same thing that’s seen in Alzheimer’s disease.

We also know that sleep apnea patients have much higher number of lacunar infarcts than people without, as well as having anywhere from 3-5 times increased risk of stroke. I would think numerous small strokes added together over years could lead to at least some degree of brain dysfunction.

It’s also safe to assume that if you have head trauma, having obstructive sleep apnea can prevent proper healing and regeneration.

Given all this, isn’t it possible that when a certain part of the brain is “injured” due to obstructive sleep apnea, depending on where it occurs, you’ll get various symptoms that correspond to where it’s happening? For example, we know that in sleep apnea patients, brain density, volume and metabolism are significantly diminished in areas that control breathing, respiration and autonomic control. What if you clotted a small vessel that feeds this area? Could it lead to central sleep apnea? What if you damage areas that produce dopamine, or hypocretin? Could this process lead to symptoms that mimic Parkinson’s or even narcolepsy? What if you had fluctuating areas of diminished blood flow that returns to normal? Could this lead to symptoms that are similar to multiple sclerosis?

I realize that much of this may be a stretch, but it never ceases to amaze me how devastating obstructive sleep apnea can be to the brain, no matter how mild it may be.

What do you think about my theory? Is it plausible, or too far fetched of an idea? I’d like to hear your opinions about this.


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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One thought on “Lou Gehrig, Head Trauma, & Sleep Apnea

  1. I’m a 50 year old man and was originally diagnosed with severe sleep apnea in my mid to early twenties. At the time, I was in excellent physical condition and had recently completed a four year tour in the army.

    At the time, a CPAP was tried and didn’t control my apnea, so the doctor performed corrective surgery. That also didn’t help.

    Over the years, I would go several years without treatment, then experience symptoms so severe that I could no longer ignore them and seek care again. The machine I use today is a bipap auto serv. Apparently, medical science has just begun identifying some of my problems, such as cheyne stokes breathing patterns.

    The current machine has me to the point that when I tolerate the very high pressure settings, and keep the mask on, I only suffer 10 – 12 episodes and hour which is a huge improvement.

    Six years ago, when I was working/driving long hours I developed a major DVT that nearly cost me my leg.

    Your theory may be the most sensible explanation for the conditions I’ve dealt with throughout all these years because I suffered a significant head trauma when I was twenty years old. At the time of the injury, the surgeon that cared for me joked that he didn’t need x-rays because my skull was perfectly exposed, and he could see every thing that he needed to.

    Over the years, it never really occurred to me that my earlier injury could have had something to do with the medical problems that I’ve dealt with. There’s no one to blame for the injury but me, and this isn’t about that. I’d just like to know if your theory includes any new or alternative care that my doctor should maybe look at.

    I have never given in to my health issues, and have had a successful career in law enforcement. Now I’m the director of a private security force at a county hospital and am having difficulty with lots of basics. I suspect that I was able to function in spite of my sleep apnea until the last year or two, and then “hit the wall” and my body can no longer shake off my symptoms.

    Reading your theory has given me hope that if the cause of my severe apnea can be determined, then there may be an effective treatment. Any help would be deeply appreciated.

    Rick Hanrahan
    rhanrahan@pcrmc.com
    573/578-7819