We know that as we go up higher in altitude, the air pressure decreases, and with it the amount of oxygen in the air. This can lead to a sleep-apnea-like condition, and for people who already have sleep apnea, the effects can be even worse. The good news is that sleep apnea treatment works well at altitude, and if you experience additional problems, there is a medication that can make it more effective at altitude.
How Altitude Causes Sleep Apnea
At high altitude, your body has a harder time regulating oxygen in your blood. This can lead to periods of very fast, deep breathing alternated by periods in which your brain isn’t telling your body to breathe, which is known as central sleep apnea.
As a result, you may experience significant dips in your oxygen saturation levels, which can lead to wakefulness. Overall, you will get less sleep, lower quality sleep, less REM sleep, and you may wake with a headache.
Typically, this effect is seen at Altitudes over 8000 feet (for reference, the city of Breckenridge is at 9600 feet).
Treating Sleep Apnea at Altitude
If you are going to be up at altitude for any length of time, you should make sure to bring your normal sleep apnea treatment, whether it’s CPAP or oral appliance. For people with CPAP, the drug acetazolamide has been shown to improve its effectiveness, though it does have side effects. Acetazolamide can cause dehydration, so make sure you’re getting plenty of water, and take it easy on cocktails after your day’s runs.
If you don’t like hauling your CPAP machine with you when you go skiing, consider getting an oral appliance. It will improve your breathing and your sleep, but it’s easy to pack and won’t disturb any of your roomies.
To learn more about sleep apnea treatment at any altitude, please call (303) 691-0267 at the TMJ Therapy & Sleep Center of Colorado in Denver.