Seizures And Sleep Apnea, Revisited
July 28, 2010
I just came across an article in the NY Times that described a condition called SUDEP (sudden unexplained death in epilepsy), where people with seizures can die in their sleep. It’s throughout to be due to loss of protective reflexes and possibly obstruction. This article brought back memories of the time I was on my neurosurgery rotation and a young woman with seizures just died in her sleep. It was a very emotional and distressing situation for everyone involved, especially when I had to tell the family about what happened. In retrospect, she probably died of SUDEP, and come to think of it, I vividly remember that she had a very narrow face.
What I found interesting was the fact that when it happens, people are usually found lying on their stomachs. References were made to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and its’ many similarities. Unfortunately, it goes on to describe the typical genetic causes for this condition, without exploring the upper airway issue at all.
If you Google sleep apnea and seizures, you’ll see tons of papers and references showing a highly significant association between these two conditions. Just to review, here’s my take on this link:
Seizures are thought to develop when abnormal connections form between nerve endings in your brain, leading to a short of “short circuit.” Many of the medications that are used to control seizures essentially calm or lessen the excitability of the brain’s nerve cells. Even the newer vagal nerve stimulation technique works by enhancing the parasympathetic nervous system (which controls the vagus nerve). Anything that helps to calm or relax your nervous system can also help to prevent seizures.
Not too surprisingly, numerous recent studies have shown that untreated obstructive sleep apnea can cause brain damage in a variety of different ways, including multiple mini-strokes, major strokes, decreased brain tissue density, decreased brain volume, diminished brain functioning, and diminished reflexes. All these effects were found to occur in critical areas of of the brain, such as areas that control memory and cognition, executive functioning, breathing, autonomic nervous system control and motor movements.
I’ve also noticed that every patient that I see that has a seizure diagnosis has very narrowed upper airway anatomy, and usually can’t sleep on their backs. More often than not, parents of people who have seizures often snore heavily and likely have untreated obstructive sleep apnea. We also know that untreated obstructive sleep apnea can significantly lower your seizure thresholds, making you more susceptible to experiencing attacks.
What all this implies is that if you have an underlying sleep-breathing problem, whether or not you have obstructive sleep apnea, you’re going to be more prone to various degrees of brain disfunction and miswiring.
What do you think about my theory? Should all epilepsy patients get screened for obstructive sleep apnea? I’d like to hear your opinion.