The short answer is yes it is possible that Sleep Apnea can be caused by ADHD, but it’s a complicated set of interactions that would lead to this outcome.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. It is usually diagnosed in childhood and can persist into adulthood. ADHD affects about 5% of children and 2.5% of adults.
On the other hand, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep due to blocked airways. This results in poor sleep quality, loud snoring, and daytime sleepiness. OSA affects approximately 12-18 million adults in the U.S.
Recent research suggests that OSA may contribute to ADHD symptoms in some patients.
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Sleep Apnea Can Mimic ADHD Symptoms
The negative impacts of OSA on sleep quality and daytime alertness can manifest as symptoms very similar to those seen in ADHD. Studies show that up to 95% of OSA patients report issues with attention, concentration, memory, learning, and executive functioning – key markers of ADHD.
How Sleep Apnea Disrupts Your Sleep
In OSA, the airway collapses during sleep, blocking oxygen intake. To reopen the airway, the brain forces a micro-awakening. These disruptions prevent the patient from reaching critical deeper stages of non-REM and REM sleep.
As a result, OSA patients rarely experience restorative sleep. Instead, their sleep is fragmented. This sleep deprivation can mimic or exacerbate the hallmark symptoms of ADHD like inattention, mood swings, and hyperactivity.
Treating Sleep Apnea Can Improve ADHD Symptoms
Early research indicates that treating OSA can lessen ADHD symptoms.
A 2017 systematic review examined six interventional studies on OSA treatment in ADHD patients. These studies found that correcting sleep apnea led to notable improvements in ADHD behaviors, including:
- Reduced inattention
- Decreased hyperactivity
- Less impulsivity
- Improved behavioral scores
- Better overall ADHD symptoms
The researchers concluded that OSA treatment potentially alleviates ADHD comorbidities. More research is still needed, but these initial findings are promising.
Diagnosing the Root Cause is Crucial
Since OSA and ADHD have overlapping symptoms, obtaining an accurate diagnosis is key before starting treatment.
Sleep studies and overnight polysomnography can definitively diagnose OSA.
For patients with both OSA and ADHD, treating the sleep apnea first is recommended. Then ADHD symptoms should be reassessed to determine optimal management. A customized treatment plan can then be created.
What Does This Mean if You Have ADHD?
For those living with ADHD, the research linking sleep apnea and attention difficulties may provide an important insight. Many ADHD patients struggle with symptoms like inattention, distractibility, and hyperactivity despite lifestyle changes and medication. However an underlying sleep disorder could be making these issues worse.
ADHD patients who feel excessively tired during the day or have trouble concentrating despite their normal treatments may want to consider getting evaluated for sleep apnea. A sleep study can definitively diagnose the breathing disorder. If present, treating sleep apnea through CPAP or other therapies can improve sleep disturbances.
In turn, proper rest at night may lessen ADHD symptoms like inattention, mood swings, and hyperactivity during the day. While more research is still needed, correcting sleep apnea appears promising for better ADHD control in those with both conditions.
Discuss screening options with your doctor to determine if a sleep disorder could be impacting your ADHD.
1. Cortese, S., Lecendreux, M., Bernardina, B. D., Mouren, M. C., Sbarbati, A., & Konofal, E. (2008). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, and restless legs syndrome: the iron hypothesis.
2. Huang YS, Guilleminault C, Li HY, Yang CM, Wu YY, Chen NH. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder with obstructive sleep apnea: a treatment outcome study. Sleep Med. 2007