See How Glaucoma and Sleep Problems are Connected
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See How Glaucoma and Sleep Problems are Connected

Sleep Health
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Glaucoma is a group of eye conditions that affects over three million adults in the United States. Glaucoma is caused by elevated eye pressure and a damaged optic nerve, leading to vision loss or blindness.

A new study from Johns Hopkins University found a link between glaucoma and sleep problems. Over 175 study participants with glaucoma were questioned about their sleep quality. Questions included if the participant had a sleep disorder or took sleep medication before bed. The study results revealed that glaucoma was more prevalent in participants who slept less than 7 hours each night.

Our article shares information about glaucoma and how sleep apnea and back sleeping can affect glaucoma symptoms.

Can Poor Sleep Worsen Glaucoma?

Those with glaucoma are more likely to struggle with sleep compared to people without glaucoma. It usually takes the average person 10 to 20 minutes to fall asleep, but, in the Johns Hopkins study referenced above, it took longer than 30 minutes for glaucoma patients. Glaucoma patients also experience sleep disturbances—patients report waking up more than once throughout the night.

When you don’t get enough sleep, your body isn’t able to fully recover from the previous day’s activities—both physical and mental. Sleep deprivation can lead to drowsiness and loss of memory. Researchers in a 2013 study found that participants who struggled to remember things from lack of sleep were twice as likely to experience vision loss than those who had no memory problems.

Sleep-Related Connections to Glaucoma

Two common sleep-related conditions linked to glaucoma are back sleeping and sleep apnea. Both can cause a decrease in oxygen intake and increase the risk of glaucoma or worsen glaucoma symptoms.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep disorder that occurs when the soft tissue at the back of the throat collapses, or the tongue falls back, obstructing the airway. When the airway is blocked, the brain signals the body to wake up, forcing oxygen into the lungs. The body can go through 10 to 30 apnea episodes each night, and the wake periods are so brief, most don’t even remember the experience. However, sleep apnea sufferers often feel tired and sore the following day.

While there is no evidence to prove that sleep apnea is more prevalent in glaucoma patients, a recent study published in Clinical & Experimental Ophthalmology clarifies that glaucoma could be a risk factor of obstructive sleep apnea.

OSA disrupts normal cardiovascular function because less oxygen is present in the body, which decreases blood flow to the brain and directly affects the optic nerve. Low oxygen levels in the blood cause arteries to narrow, increasing blood pressure. High blood pressure means more intraocular or inner eye pressure and leads to optic nerve damage or open-angle glaucoma.

Standard treatment for OSA is using a continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP). A CPAP device is a machine that pumps a constant stream of air into the body through a face mask.

Back Sleeping

If you prefer sleeping on your back, you may be at a higher risk of developing glaucoma. The supine position can narrow and possibly obstruct airways due to gravity. When the body doesn’t get enough oxygen, arteries narrow, increasing blood pressure. Inner eye pressure also increases and damages the optic nerve, putting you at risk for glaucoma.

A healthier way to sleep is on your side. Side sleeping opens up the airways so you can breathe better than you would on your back. Side sleeping also improves heart health and reduces acid reflux.

FAQs

What does vision look like with glaucoma?

The most common symptoms of glaucoma patients include blurry vision, a noticeable glare, difficulty distinguishing contrast, lack of peripheral vision, and needing more light to see in general. While there isn’t a cure for glaucoma, there are ways to treat the symptoms. Regular exercise and a healthy diet help lower eye pressure and keep the blood flowing to the optic nerves. Taking medicine prescribed by your doctor can slow down the degeneration of the optic nerves.

What can you do at home to lower eye pressure?

Optic nerve damage caused by glaucoma can’t be reversed. Still, regular checkups with a healthcare provider and treatment (usually medicated eye drops) can help, especially in the disease’s early stages. Other home remedies, including eating a healthy diet, exercising, drinking plenty of fluids, and limiting caffeine consumption can alleviate glaucoma symptoms. Sleeping with your head elevated reduces intraocular pressure as you sleep—we recommend a wedge pillow or an adjustable base.

Are 5 hours enough for sleep?

Five hours is not enough sleep for the average person. The CDC recommends adults sleep 7 to 9 hours each night, allowing the mind and body to recover from the previous day’s events. If you have glaucoma, it’s especially important to get the recommended amount of sleep each night—sleep latency increases cortisol production, a stress hormone, which raises blood pressure. In turn, high blood pressure also increases intraocular pressure, worsening glaucoma symptoms.

Does glaucoma make you tired?

Glaucoma doesn’t make you tired—it’s more of a sleep problem if you have glaucoma, which causes daytime sleepiness. For example, those with obstructive sleep apnea frequently wake at night because the brain signals the body to wake up, forcing oxygen into the lungs. You may not remember these wake periods, but you’ll feel sleepy and struggle to focus the next morning.

A side effect of some glaucoma medications is drowsiness. If you feel tired or out of breath after using prescribed eye drops, call your doctor immediately.

Can you get glaucoma from stress?

Stress can influence intraocular pressure, but there isn’t any conclusive evidence to show stress can cause glaucoma. Stress produces cortisol, a stress hormone that raises blood pressure and increases the risk of developing glaucoma. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and 7 to 9 hours of sleep reduces stress and lowers glaucoma risk.

Conclusion

You could be at a higher risk of developing glaucoma if you sleep on your back or have OSA. Medical experts are still trying to find out what causes glaucoma, but evidence suggests a connection between glaucoma and sleep problems.

We also want to point out that poor sleep and glaucoma are not always related. However, if you struggle with sleep, talk with your doctor to resolve these issues. It’s also essential to have your vision checked regularly—getting treatment for the early stages of glaucoma helps preserve your vision and reduces symptoms.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

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