How Sleep Apnea Can Affect Your Hearing


The etymology of apnea is the “suspension of breathing” derived from the Greek word apnoea “the absence of respiration”. Sleep apnea is a serious issue facing society, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders. Sleep apnea affects an estimated 858,900 people or 3 percent of Canadian adults as reported by healthcare professionals in a 2009 Canadian Community Health Survey.

Sleep disorders result in a myriad of problems, everything from decreased work productivity to road collisions and work related injuries. Sleep apnea is usually first diagnosed with loud audible snoring at night followed by extreme fatigue after waking up.

This common sleep disorder results in the involuntary cessation of breathing while sleeping for 10 to 30 seconds at a time, resulting in decreased oxygen to the brain. Left undiagnosed and untreated this sleep disorder can lead take years off your life.

The Human Respiratory System

The bodies autonomous nervous system governs our breathing automatically without conscious thought. Breathing is the inhalation and exhalation of air into and out of the lungs, the average person takes 20 to 30 breaths per minute. Air is collected in the pharynx when inhaled before passing through the epiglottis (a flap of thin tissue) at the back of the throat that opens and closes to allow air into the trachea. The trachea is approximately 11 cm in length and cylindrical in shape. The trachea is a tube made up of a cartilaginous and membrane like tissue that extends from the lower part of the larynx, before dividing into two bronchi one for each lung.

The lungs are the main organs of the respiratory system responsible for the blood gas exchange in the human body. The bronchi resemble small tree branches in the lungs, the tips of the bronchi are where the alveoli are located. The alveoli are tiny balloon like structures where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place in the lungs. The alveoli inflate and deflate when you inhale and exhale, their function is to oxygenate the blood through diffusion of oxygen into the capillary walls of the bloodstream, alveoli are also responsible for removing carbon dioxide when you exhale. Each human has approximately 300 million alveoli in their lungs. When you exhale the thoracic diaphragm contracts leaving more space in the abdominal cavity to allow air into the lungs. Depending on what type of sleep apnea you have the internal respiratory organs may not function properly.

Different Types Of Sleep Apnea

There are three main types of sleep apnea: obstructive, central and mixed. All versions of sleep apnea result in involuntary cessation of the breath.

  1. Obstructive sleep apnea is an obstruction of the breathing channel having to do with the epiglottis the tissue that regulates air intake. People who inhale air through the oral cavity are at an increased risk for breathing issues.
  1. Central sleep apnea is not an obstruction of the breathing channel but when the brain fails to send signals to the muscles of the body to breathe.
  1. Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea

How We Hear

The outer part of the ear the pinna catches approaching sound waves and funnels them down the ear canal. The pinna and ear canal naturally minimize background noise while automatically amplifying human speech. When sound reaches the end of the ear canal, it causes the tympanic membrane (eardrum) to vibrate and engage the three tiny bones of the ossicular chain: the malleus, incus and the stapes. These tiny bones work in unison to magnify the vibration picked up by the eardrum to stimulate the cochlea a snail shaped organ. The stapes transfers the mechanical energy from the vibration to the fluid filled oval window in the cochlea, causing a wave to travel stimulating thousands of tiny hair like fibers sending a signal to the brain enabling you to hear.

Tell Tale Signs Of Sleep Apnea

Common sleep apnea symptoms are the following:

  • waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat
  • loud snoring
  • waking up short of breath
  • falling asleep driving
  • fatigue after sleeping
  • hearing loss
  • inability to concentrate
  • difficulty in staying awake during the day

Sleep Apnea and Hearing Loss

A recent study presented by the 2014 Thoracic Society International Conference in San Diego focused on up to 13,967 people of hispanic descent, suffering from sleep apnea and its association with hearing loss. The National Institute of Health (NIH) stated sleep apnea is linked to the following ailments: increase in diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, heart failure and arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat). Adding to the current list of complications for undiagnosed sleep apnea is the loss of hearing. Now more than ever it is imperative to get a check up by a qualified physician if you think your loud snoring and lethargy could be the result of interruptions when you sleep.

Is there a correlation between the decibels of a person that snores and hearing loss? To answer this question we must first acknowledge that hearing loss is most often attributed to loud audible sounds for prolonged periods of time. Severe snoring measures 60 to 80 decibels in comparison to 90 decibels for a car horn and 130 decibels for an airplane taking off from a runway. People who breathe through the mouth are predisposed to snoring including people that experience sleep apnea.

The ear, nose and throat are interconnected and work together in unison, loud audible sounds emanating from the throat affect the inner organs of the ear canal. The CDC has classified prolonged sound exposure above and beyond 85 decibels for a period of 8 hours will result in hearing loss. The average human being sleeps 8 hours a day and lives to around 75 years old in North America, if you sleep 8 hours per day that calculates to spending 22 to 25 years sleeping in a lifetime. People afflicted with undiagnosed sleep apnea snore at decibels beginning at 90 decibels and above, prolonged exposure every night to the loud audible sounds of constant snoring contributes to hearing loss over an extended period of time. Living with sleep apnea for multiple years is comparable to subjecting yourself to a blaring car horn and airplane taking off every single night for 8 hours.

If you find your hearing is not as acute as it once was consult a physician who can properly diagnose you for possible sleep apnea.

Kristyl Clark