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You are here: Home / HPRC Blog / Sleep Apnea and athletic performance

Sleep Apnea and athletic performance

published: 06-13-2011 Journal entry icon

NBA superstar Shaquille O'Neal recently announced that he will retire from professional basketball after 19 seasons and four championship rings. In addition to that announcement, O'Neal announced via a YouTube video that he, like 12 million other Americans, had been diagnosed with sleep apnea.

According to his girlfriend, the seven-feet-tall, 300-plus-pounds center snored excessively during the night, and she noticed that his chest would often cease movement entirely. After participating in a Harvard University–sponsored sleep study, he was diagnosed with a mild case of sleep apnea and was advised to begin wearing a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) mask, a respiratory ventilation therapy that assists the wearer’s breathing while asleep. O'Neal's story has a happy ending—because of the recent diagnosis and subsequent treatment, O’Neal reports that he feels more energetic and that his overall quality of life has improved. He is also happy and comfortable with the treatment. Other professional athletes suffering from sleep apnea have not been so fortunate. In 2006, Reggie White, defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers—one of the greatest players in football history—reportedly died from causes related to sleep apnea.

What exactly is sleep apnea? And how does it affect athletic performance? People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times during the night and often for a minute or longer. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, there are three types of apnea: obstructive, central, and mixed. Of the three types, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common. Weight can contribute to sleep apnea. In 2009, a study by Sweden's Karolinska Institute showed that overweight and obese men who lost weight during a calorie-restricted diet over nine weeks had major improvements in their sleep apnea symptoms.

Other risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea include certain physical attributes, such as having a thick neck (which describes many athlete body types), deviated septum, receding chin, and enlarged tonsils or adenoids. Allergies or other medical conditions that cause nasal congestion and blockage can also contribute to sleep apnea.

Signs of sleep apnea include loud and chronic snoring, choking, snorting, or gasping during sleep, long pauses in breathing, and daytime sleepiness regardless of how much time you spend sleeping. Other common signs and symptoms of sleep apnea include waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat, morning headaches, restless or fitful sleep, insomnia or nighttime awakenings, going to the bathroom frequently during the night, waking up feeling out of breath, forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating, moodiness, irritability, or depression.

Untreated, sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases, memory problems, weight gain, impotency, and headaches. Moreover, left untreated, it may be responsible for job impairment and motor vehicle crashes.

In terms of athletic/sports performance, sleep apnea is a major concern because sleep apnea causes a disruption to healthy sleep patterns, which in turn can affect physical performance. According to a 2007 Stanford University study of sleep and athletic performance, athletes who extend the amount of sleep they get and reduce their sleep debt are more likely to improve their performance. Conversely, if an athlete does not get a good night’s sleep, then the next day he/she is tired, sleepy, or irritable. In such cases, physical performance also is impaired, since there is limited energy reserve due to the lack of adequate or good-quality sleep.  Sleep apnea not only has an impact on athletes—it affects the military, as well.

So what can you do if you suspect that you or your sleep partner has sleep apnea? The only way to be sure is to undergo a sleep test, which is done in a sleep lab where patients sleep in a special bedroom with electrodes and other sensors attached to various parts of the body. There, you will be monitored throughout the night to keep track of whether and how often you stop breathing, how low your O2 sat (oxygen saturation) goes, and what your brainwaves are doing while you're sleeping.

For additional resources on sleep and sleep apnea, please visit the following:

American Sleep Apnea Association

National Sleep Foundation

How Much Sleep does a Warfighter Need?

National Center on Sleep Disorders Research