How Does Hypersomnia Relate to Sleep Apnea?

Hypersomnia is a serious sleep condition that, if left untreated, may contribute to poor physical and mental health. Fortunately, it is diagnosable and treatable. It’s important to note that although hypersomnia and sleep apnea may overlap with certain characteristics, they are not the same. Here’s everything you need to know about the relation between the two sleep disorders.

Hypersomnia

Idiopathic hypersomnia is a sleep disorder that causes excessive sleepiness during the day, even when you think you have gotten plenty of sleep. It makes it incredibly difficult to get up after sleeping and there’s never a feeling of being refreshed. It is an uncommon condition impacting 4 to 6 percent of the population and has a higher prevalence in men than women.

Symptoms

Having undiagnosed hypersomnia is not an easy life to live. Adults need a minimum of 7 hours of sleep each night. For an individual with hypersomnia, no amount ever feels like enough to be fully rested. Those who have the disorder often have difficulty thinking clearly and are lethargic. These people may have difficulty staying awake nearly everywhere. They may also find it increasingly difficult to connect with their family and friends socially.

Causes

There are two different types or causes of hypersomnia. They are primary and secondary hypersomnia1. Primary hypersomnia is when there is no known cause due to lack of other medical conditions present. Secondary idiopathic hypersomnia is caused by a variety of other medical conditions.

The term “idiopathic” means unknown cause. There is no straightforward, defined cause as it can be due to a variety of medical conditions or scenarios different for each individual.

  • Sleep Deprivation
  • Obesity
  • Genetics (Hereditary)
  • Neurological Diseases (Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis)
  • Sleep Disorders (Narcolepsy, Sleep Apnea)
  • Medication or Medication Withdrawal

It’s generally first diagnosed in early adulthood, but it can occur at any time.

Hypersomnia and Sleep Apnea

Many with sleep apnea can develop hypersomnia. Sleep apnea can be the direct cause of a person’s hypersomnia. When a patient first describes symptoms that show markers for hypersomnia, it is always a possibility that sleep apnea is the cause2. The physician will ask the patient a series of questions to determine if they may need to make some simple lifestyle adjustments or if there is a more serious underlying issue happening. This is why a sleep test, being one of the first lines of action to gain a prognosis if sleep apnea is suspected, is normally the next step.

How to Treat Hypersomnia

The way hypersomnia will be treated will vary upon what the physician thinks may be causing the disorder.

Naturally

There are ways to treat this disorder without pharmacological intervention. Some patients may be advised to adopt healthy sleep hygiene or even a change in diet. They will be advised to find time to incorporate more sleep into their schedules and stick to a consistent sleep schedule, even if that means having to say no to some social activities. Another treatment option that may be prescribed is CPAP therapy if the individual is also diagnosed with sleep apnea after undergoing a sleep study.

Medicinally

If these approaches do not help, medications can be prescribed to help treat the condition. The most commonly prescribed ones are stimulants such as amphetamine. However, antidepressants, clonidine and monoamine oxidase inhibitors may also be included.

Sleep Testing

Because sleep apnea is often a cause of hypersomnia, sleep testing is normally the best way to know if this is the case for each patient. The test is simple and painless. Generally, the tests are done overnight in a lab while the patient sleeps in a room very similar to a nice and comfortable hotel room. Electrodes are placed on the head to monitor activity and sleep disturbances. The data will then be gathered and sent to the attending physician to determine a treatment plan. This is really the best way to know if sleep apnea is causing the hypersomnia.

While hypersomnia can be extremely hard to live with, it’s important to remember that there are treatment options available. If you or a loved one consistently demonstrate signs of hypersomnia, seek out help today. 

  1. Dauvilliers, Y., & Buguet, A. (2005). Hypersomnia. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 7(4), 347–356.
  2. Why excessive sleepiness may persist in OSA patients receiving adequate CPAP treatment. P. Castiglioni, C. Lombardi, P. Cortelli, G. Parati. European Respiratory Journal Jan 2012, 39 (1) 226-227; DOI: 10.1183/09031936.00147111

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