Guide: COPD + Sleep Apnea

Guide: COPD + Sleep Apnea

Generally speaking, the two most common pulmonary diseases people suffer from are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). And, for things to be even more complicated, a person can suffer from these two at the same time which is a phenomenon usually called the Overlap Syndrome which can even lead to chronic health issues like diabetes or heart disease.

The Overlap Syndrome

Unfortunately, a patient suffering from both COPD and OSA has a very weak and damaged respiratory system. While COPD means that the person has difficulties maintaining a healthy balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen during the day, those suffering from OSA experience breathing obstructions once they fall asleep. Hence, people suffering from both these conditions, i.e. the Overlap Syndrome, never catch a break.

The Overlap Syndrome is a relatively new medical term coined at the beginning of the 21st century when pulmonologists found out the following:

  • Patients suffering from COPD or asthma have higher chances to suffer from OSA due to the mechanisms of daytime breathing problems which also occur at night
  • Patients suffering from either COPD or asthma do have evident breathing problems, but not as severe as they could be if they had OSA too.

Plus, people who have either COPD or asthma, but not OSA, are far more likely to suffer from a sleep breathing disorder as a result of the upper airway mechanisms.

How are COPD and OSA Linked?

The truth is, nearly half of people suffering from COPD experience some kind of breathing issues while asleep. Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease have their blood oxygen levels reduced during the day, and once they are asleep, OSA reduces these already low levels which, depending on how severe the condition is, can be lethal.

Furthermore, both COPD and OSA occur because both the lower and the upper airways do not function properly. In other words, the dysfunction of the organs and structures situated between the mouth and the lungs. And, the condition of people who have the Overlap Syndrome can easily get worse or even lead to death, which is not really the case for those who suffer from one condition only.

How is the Overlap Syndrome Diagnosed?

An overnight sleep study is the most common way used to address and diagnose the Overlap Syndrome when people with COPD (or asthma) have sleep complaints. This study involves accurate measurements of blood oxygen and breathing patterns to determine whether a person has the Overlap Syndrome or not. As soon as a sleep-breathing problem is identified, the person should get treatment to manage sleep breathing issues.

How is the Overlap Syndrome Treated?

In order to treat the Overlap Syndrome, specialists try to focus on two main things. The first is the maintenance of normal blood oxygen levels during the day. The second is the prevention of obstructive sleep apnea.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) has proven to be the most effective therapy for obstructive sleep apnea. The combination of CPAP with supplemental oxygen is also a common therapy. Other treatment includes the use of short- and long-term steroids to relieve COPD symptoms in combination with weight loss for obese patients.

Indeed, the Overlap Syndrome has proven to be challenging to address and treat. Researchers are constantly trying to find new and more efficient ways to manage both chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) while the challenges of patients’ lives still linger.