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The nighttime snoring, snorting, and loss of breath caused by obstructive sleep apnea keeps tens of million of people—and their bed partners—sleeping fitfully every night

A New Low-Tech, Low-Cost Method for Treating Obstructive Sleep Apnea

In obstructive sleep apnea, the  upper airways narrow so much that the body jerks awake with a violent exhalation of breath, just for a moment, hundreds of times each night.

Left untreated, obstructive sleep apnea always causes daytime fatigue, usually causes high blood pressure, and can contribute to overweight, psychological problems, and potentially fatal accidents caused by inattention. Many marriages break up over the disturbance to sleep suffered by the partner of the sleep apnea sufferer.

The standard medical interventions for obstructive sleep apnea include surgery to remove the tonsils and/or soft palate. These surgical procedures are painful, expensive (usually not covered by health insurance), and frequently unsuccessful. When surgery is not offered, patients are fitted with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines. Looking a little like scuba gear to be worn to bed, the machines can dry out the throat and sinuses and incubate upper respiratory infections as well as irritate the skin and scare away bed partners. In the USA, people with sleep apnea may spend tens of thousands of dollars on medical treatments that do not work.

Surgery and CPAP are not the only interventions for sleep apnea. Breathe-Right strips, tennis balls sewed into pillows, didgeridoo lessons, and vocalization exercises all have been tried as treatments for obstructive sleep apnea, with varying degrees of success. From France, however, comes a new remedy for disordered nighttime breathing: Socks. More specifically, French researchers say that the compression stockings more commonly used for treating varicose veins may be a useful treatment for sleep apnea.

Varicose veins are vessels in the legs that don't have the "oomph" to send blood back to the heart against the force of gravity. Compression stockings take over the work that leaky valves and weak muscles cannot do, pushing blood out of the veins and allowing them to gradually heal and return to their normal size. In many cases, compression stockings get better results than surgery.

Researchers in France and Italy report that compression stockings may also relieve sleep apnea by sending more fluid to the face and throat. The greater pressure in the veins around the mouth and throat keep the walls of the mouth and throat tighter, keeping airways open, stopping the collapse that causes apnea.

Researchers at the chronic venous insufficiency clinic at the Clinique La Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris, led by Dr. Stefania Redolfi of the University of Brescia in Italy, fitted a group of sleep apnea sufferers with compression stockings they wore for a week, followed by a one-night visit to the polysomography clinic to monitor sleep apnea. The test subjects then went a week without wearing the stockings and came back for a second monitoring session. A second group of test subjects were also tested in two sessions, wearing the stockings during the second week rather than the first.

The researchers found that stockings reduced nighttime swelling of leg veins by 62%, and also reduced nighttime swelling in the neck by 60%. The number of breathless episodes per night was reduced by 36%.

The doctors expected compression stockings to relieve obstructive sleep apnea, but they did not expect results in just one week. They speculate that wearing stockings on a regular basis would result in even greater benefits to sleep apnea sufferers.

Compression stockings are available for about US $25 without a prescription, online and at department stores that sell socks and hosiery.

  • American Thoracic Society (2011, August 4). Compression stockings may reduce obstructive sleep apnea in some patients. ScienceDaily, accessed 7 August 2011.
  • Photo courtesy of ohocheese on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/ohocheese/4433229375/

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