Sleep Apnea and Athletes

Florence Cardinal Health Guide
  • After watching a football game, it's hard to believe that any of these big, tough men might be seriously ill. Injured, maybe. But sick? No way!


    But, according to a recent study by New England Journal of Medicine, this might well be the case. Sleep apnea affects about 4% of the general population. However, when football players participated in sleep studies, the percentage rose to 14% of all players. Offensive and defensive linemen had an even higher prevalence of apnea with 34%.


    This is much higher than that found in the general population of a similar age, but it's really not all that surprising to anyone familiar with the sleep disorder. Although slim people are sometimes afflicted with sleep apnea, the majority of sufferers are heavy set to obese with short, thick necks - the perfect description of many football players.

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    So, although these athletes appear to be in excellent physical condition, all may not be as it seems. And, for a group of apparently healthy young men, this trend is particularly worrisome.


    But it only emphasizes one of the statements I have used many times when writing about sleep apnea. If you are overweight, do something about it. Watch your diet. Exercise. (And I know football players do get plenty of exercise, so it has to be coupled with dietary changes.)


    So many diseases and disorders are linked to obesity - sleep apnea, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease. The list seems endless.


    Like a football player, you have to strive to make that goal. Join a weight loss support group, talk to your doctor or dietician, join an aerobics class, but get that weight down before sleep apnea scores a touchdown.


    Another study, this one conducted in the Douai Memorial Hospital in Tokyo, reveals that many Sumo wrestlers also suffer from sleep apnea.


    Why does this happen? These men are athletes. Aren't athletes supposed to be finely honed, healthy muscle machines? Many are. But in both football and sumo wrestling, size and weight are also important. This is especially true in sumo wrestling where ring weight averages between 300 and 400 pounds and may go up to 600 pounds or more.


    The extra weight is usually an advantage in sumo wrestling. However, if the wrestler suffers from obstructive sleep apnea, he lacks the concentration needed for the sport. This may be causing injuries. Apnea is also causing wrestlers to lose more matches than is normal or to miss tournaments.


    There are some slim apnea victims, but the majority of such people have a weight problem. I've spoken to people involved in weight loss groups, and many confess to either having sleep apnea or other sleep problems. The excess weight can affect people in several ways. First, it makes finding a comfortable position in bed difficult. The excess flab in the throat area causes breathing difficulties. And, ".... the pressure of their own body weight on the pharynx and respiratory area can make it difficult to breathe," says Dr. Naohito Suzuki, who headed up the Tokyo study.


Published On: May 05, 2008