06/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Link Between Sleep Apnea and Eye Disorders

Like severe back pain or battling a bad stomach flu, your world can stop dead in its tracks when you've got an distressing eye disorder. What if the problem in your eyes, however, were associated with your sleep habits?

That's what one recent study has found with regard to a rare eye disorder called floppy eyelid syndrome

I've discussed OSA at length before. People with this common sleep disorder repeatedly stop and start breathing during the night when throat muscles relax and block the airway. This results in fragmented, poor sleep, as well as low blood oxygen levels. OSA has been associated with an increased risk for myriad health problems, including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, mood and memory problems.

What's interesting about this latest study is that it debunked previous notions about FES, which had long been considered a disease of overweight, middle-aged men. The British researchers did not find such a pattern based on age, gender, or body mass index (a measure of weight and barometer for obesity). But they did find a remarkable pattern with regard to obstructive sleep apnea, which affects more than 18 million people in the United States.

The characteristics of FES are not pretty:

  • People with FES have rubbery-textured upper eyelids that may easily flip up during sleep, exposing the whites of their eyes, which can lead to dry, irritated eyes and/or discharge.
  • Most people would awaken if their eyes became excessively dry and irritated during sleep, but people with OSA may have a dysfunctional nervous system that prevents them from waking to address their eyes.
  • What's more, people with OSA tend to sleep on one side, which could result in intense, repeated pressure on the eyelid on that side of the face.
  • The combination of all these factors may contribute to or cause FES.

The good news? The study notes that a patient with FES was cured once he was treated with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask. Today, a CPAP machine is our best therapy for treating OSA.

I love it when science makes fascinating links between two seemingly different health challenges. When we can rely on our sleep habits to treat, prevent, manage, or even cure in some cases, conditions that reduce our quality of life and health, well... I think that says a lot about sleep. And what it can mean when we don't get the sleep our bodies deserve - and the incredible, and sometimes amazing benefits that good sleep brings. 

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™

This article on sleep apnea is also available at Dr. Breus's official blog, The Insomnia Blog: by Sleep Doctor Michael Breus, PhD.