Sleep Apnea and Back Pain: What's the Connection?

These two seemingly unrelated ailments are actually more linked than you’d think.

We’ve all been there. As you attempt to find a comfortable sleeping position, that nagging pain in your back rears its ugly head once again. Nocturnal back pain is a very real thing for so many people—in fact, according to one 2013 study, 78% of participants suffered from insomnia when dealing with low back pain. 

Man with sleep apnea and back painSleep apnea and back pain feed off one another in a vicious cycle.

The majority of the population struggles with nocturnal back pain at one time or another, but a smaller group within that majority can actually attribute their back pain to one particular disorder: sleep apnea. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that 26% of adults between the ages of 30 and 70 years have this disruptive disorder. 

Sleep apnea back pain can be attributed to a vicious cycle. It’s only natural that unrestful sleep, something that’s caused by sleep apnea, can make one more susceptible to pain. Back pain can also cause someone to be unable to find a comfortable sleeping position, and the vicious cycle begins again. 

Read on to discover the connection between sleep apnea and back pain and what you can do about it. 

What is Sleep Apnea?

Julie Paik, MD, ScD, is a physician at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and defines sleep apnea as “a common chronic sleep disorder in adults in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts.” She lists examples of symptoms, which include excessive daytime sleepiness, snoring, observed episodes during sleep when breathing has stopped, and abrupt awakenings during sleep.

According to Dr. Paik, risk factors for this disorder commonly include: 

  • Obesity
  • Family history of sleep apnea
  • Narrow airway 
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes 

“We are still learning about risk factors for sleep apnea, and this is an area of active, ongoing research,” she adds. 

How Sleep Apnea and Back Pain Are Related

Dr. Paik was a co-author of a 2020 study in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research in which the authors studied the connection between obstructive sleep apnea and vertebral and hip fractures in women. 

 “The study found that women with a history of obstructive sleep apnea had a twofold higher risk of vertebral fracture relative to those with no history of obstructive sleep apnea, with the strongest association observed for obstructive sleep apnea associated with daytime sleepiness,” as Dr. Paik details. She says that no association was observed between a history of obstructive sleep apnea and risk of hip fracture though. 

So, why does sleep apnea impact bone health, particularly in the vertebrae? 

Dr. Paik says that she and the co-authors speculate that there are multiple ways in which sleep apnea could affect bone health, such as: 

  • Lower oxygen levels
  • Acidosis (a build-up of acid in the bloodstream) following intermittent hypoxia (a lack of oxygen in the tissues)
  • Increased inflammation
  • Modulation, or a varying, in the sex hormones

Dr. Paik concludes from the study that, simply put, sleep apnea is associated with a higher risk of vertebral fracture, adding, “Back pain can be a symptom of vertebral fracture.” 

Sleep Apnea Treatments

Luckily, there are some sleep apnea treatments and lifestyle changes you can turn to in order to lessen the effects of this disorder, and in turn, alleviate back pain. 

  • According to the Obesity Medicine Association, around 70% of people with sleep apnea are obese. Losing weight is something that can help sleep apnea. 
  • Studies have suggested that smoking can increase the severity of sleep apnea by lowering the functionality of one’s airway and causing inflammation. That means that it’s imperative to quit smoking if you want to improve your sleep apnea.
  • CPAP machines, which stand for continuous positive airway pressure, have also proven to be quite beneficial to those dealing with sleep apnea. Studies have suggested that these machines can improve symptoms. 

Dr. Paik calls all of these “important treatments,” and stresses, “It’s important to discuss with your healthcare provider regarding treatment for sleep apnea if you have been diagnosed with this condition.” 

Why is it important to get treatment? Because sleep apnea doesn’t just wreck your sleep, it can wreck your health too, potentially raising your risk for: 

  • High blood pressure and heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome
  • Complications after surgery 

…and more, not to mention the wrath of anyone with whom you share a bed. 

Sleep Better Tonight

If you suspect that you may have sleep apnea and you believe that you’re experiencing sleep apnea neck pain or back pain, it’s essential to make an appointment to see your doctor for a formal diagnosis. By landing upon a treatment plan that works well for you, you might be able to ease your sleep apnea symptoms, which can result in less back pain and a better night’s rest. 

Updated on: 04/14/21
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