COPD & Sleep Apnea: What Is Overlap Syndrome?

June 08, 2020

COPD & Sleep Apnea: What Is Overlap Syndrome?

Respiratory Illnesses & Sleep

Respiratory illnesses affect millions of individuals across the world each year. While these illnesses are most commonly characterized by the impact that they have on an individual’s lung function, it’s also important to recognize how it affects sleep hygiene. 

Many researchers have spent years investigating how pulmonary diseases impact the sleep quality of patients. In fact, there have even been studies carried out on how the common cold affects our ability to get a night of restful sleep. 

As we know environmental, psychological and physiological factors all impact the quality of sleep hygiene. And it has been found time and time again, those with respiratory illnesses are at a much higher chance of suffering from sleep deprivation due to their impacted lung functioning and their requirement to spend more time in hospital environments. 

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) are two of the most commonly reported respiratory illnesses. And both have a tremendous impact on a patient’s ability to achieve good sleep hygiene. 

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder: What Is It?

COPD is an umbrella term used for respiratory disorders such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic asthma. It is known as being a progressive disease and develops slowly over time. Patients with COPD will often experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing, fatigue, chronic cough and tightening in the chest area. 

All types of COPD cause similar symptoms, however, severity may differ between patients. Many medical reports suggest that this respiratory illness is most often caused by exposure to lung irritants such as smoking, air pollution and exposure to chemicals. In very rare cases, a genetic condition called alpha-1-antitrypsin can play a role in causing COPD. 

Many individuals who suffer from a COPD-related pulmonary disease note an inability to sleep well at night. This is both due to the kind of symptoms that they suffer from and also due to the medication they are taking. Interestingly, COPD also causes patients to experience reduced blood oxygen levels which impacts the ability to receive adequate oxygen levels while sleeping at night. 


How Is COPD Diagnosed? 

Many individuals may not recognize COPD symptoms until the later stages of the disease. However, early treatment is key for this illness so it’s important to not wait until symptoms are severe to go and seek professional help. 

To diagnose this pulmonary disease, your physician will need to carry out a number of different tests and learn more about your medical history. Those who are concerned that they are suffering from COPD symptoms are often required to take a spirometry test. Spirometry involves a patient blowing air into a mouthpiece and tubing that is connected to a small device. This device measures how efficiently your lungs are functioning. 

Your physician may also carry out other tests such as a chest x-ray and an arterial blood gas test. These exams can effectively detect symptoms of COPD before they even develop and accurately assess what stage you are at. 

COPD treatment generally includes a course of medication, oxygen therapy, and necessary lifestyle changes. 


When COPD & Sleep Apnea Meet: Introducing Overlap Syndrome

Many who suffer from COPD also experience Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). When these two disorders exist simultaneously, it is known as Overlap Syndrome. 

Overlap syndrome, which can occur in 10% - 15% of COPD patients, is associated with the reduction of blood oxygen levels during the day and sleep that leads to extreme fatigue and other serious health conditions. Those with this syndrome struggle to maintain healthy levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide during the day. At night, OSA then kicks in which further imbalances a person’s blood chemistry. 

Essentially, it means that these individuals never get the opportunity to rest properly from the constant breathing difficulties they experience. As both disorders originate from the same mechanism; the dysfunction of muscles and tissues in the airway passages, without effective treatment, these patients are at increased risk of developing various health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. 


What Are The Treatment Options For Sleep Apnea & COPD? 

Unfortunately, COPD is not curable. However, it can be managed effectively with the right coping mechanisms in place. Getting adequate sleep is vital for COPD patients and for those that have Overlap syndrome, that involves pinpointing and treating the cause of OSA. 

Treatment options for Overlap syndrome include two important elements: 

  • The maintenance of adequate blood oxygen levels during the day
  • Preventing apneic episodes at night 

Both CPAP and BiPAP therapy have proven successful in improving the sleep quality of COPD patients. By managing the breathing difficulties experienced at night with positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy, these patients have reported improved levels of sleep quality and note feeling less fatigued during day-time hours. 

Combining this with the necessary COPD treatments such as supplemental oxygen therapy, medication and rehabilitation therapies can greatly improve patients’ quality of life. In addition to these treatment options, it is also advised that those with Overlap syndrome make the necessary lifestyle changes to maintain a healthy sleep schedule. 

Consider establishing a regular and relaxing bedtime routine and stick to a set sleep/wake schedule. Creating a comfortable sleeping environment can be extremely beneficial in improving your ability to sleep peacefully each night. Other COPD coping strategies include keeping your home smoke-free, developing a physician-approved exercise routine and eating healthy high-protein foods. 

Coping With OSA And COPD: It’s Possible 

Respiratory illnesses such as OSA and COPD are serious conditions that should never be ignored especially when they co-exist together. However, with early detection and with the right treatment options in place, many Overlap syndrome patients have reported better sleep patterns and improved COPD symptoms. 

If you believe that you are currently experiencing COPD and OSA symptoms, make sure to go and seek professional advice immediately. The sooner that these respiratory illnesses are caught, the better. For more information on the benefits of CPAP and BiPAP therapy for OSA or COPD, reach out and consult with your doctor.

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