• Sleep Apnea and Glaucoma

    Written By: Kierstan Boyd
    Reviewed By: J Kevin McKinney MD
    Jan. 19, 2018

    Do you have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)? If so, you probably know that leaving it untreated can lead to serious health problems like high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. But did you know that this dangerous sleep disorder may also lead to vision loss from glaucoma?

    OSA is a condition where muscles in your airway relax during sleep, keeping you from breathing. You may stop breathing for as long as two minutes. OSA symptoms include loud snoring, gasping for air during sleep, feeling sleepy during the day, and waking with a headache.

    Glaucoma is a disease affecting the eye’s optic nerve. It is called the silent thief of sight because you do not notice any symptoms at first. As the optic nerve becomes damaged, vision is gradually lost and cannot be recovered.

    Studies show that people who suffer from sleep apnea are more likely to develop glaucoma than those who do not have this sleep problem. However, it is not fully understood how the two diseases are directly related.

    Researchers are studying what happens to the eye during apnea episodes by having patients wear special contact lenses while sleeping. The lenses detect changes in pressure inside the eye (called intraocular pressure, or IOP). Optic nerve damage from glaucoma is often related to higher-than-normal eye pressure. Researchers expected that, with OSA, IOP would increase since pressure in the chest rises when people stop breathing out. However, this was not the case. In fact, IOP dropped during sleep apnea episodes. Scientists now think that some forms of glaucoma may result from not having enough oxygen in the blood—a result of not breathing normally with sleep apnea.

    As the studies reveal more information about the eye during sleep, ophthalmologists are hopeful that we will see new treatments for glaucoma and other OSA-related eye disease.