More chronically fatigued active-duty soldiers are getting treatment for sleep disorders at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center’s Sleep Center.
While deployment-related injuries that cause post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury can result in sleep disorders, specialists say a rise in the number of soldiers seeking treatment is attributed to increasing knowledge in a relatively new field of medicine.
Lt. Col. Karin Nicholson, chief of Sleep Services at Darnall, said the hospital’s Sleep Center has seen more than 6,000 patients since it opened its sleep lab in 2012.
More than 600 patients with sleep-related disorders had studies performed on them in the lab, Nicholson said. The full sleep treatment center provides comprehensive sleep evaluations for all sleep disorders, but the two most common disorders the center sees are for obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia.
Obstructive sleep apnea is an upper airway disorder that causes disrupted sleep, Nicholson said. “The soft tissue in the back of the throat is floppy and thickened and will block the airway during sleep.”
When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan nearly 12 years ago, 983 veterans began to draw disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs for sleep apnea, according to an article by Stars and Stripes. Last year, 24,791 people were added to Veterans Affairs compensation rolls for service-connected sleep apnea, raising the number of veterans and retirees drawing apnea payments to 114,103. Veterans affairs compensation for sleep apnea now exceeds $1.2 billion annually under the most conservative of calculations, the article states.
Most patients with obstructive sleep apnea have had symptoms for five or more years prior to being diagnosed and weight gain can cause the disorder to emerge, Nicholson said. “Traumatic brain injury is also associated with onset of an apnea syndrome.”
Samantha Camp, sleep lab manager at Metroplex, said there are different types of sleep apnea, which are typically caused by either genetics or obesity.
“Some people only have it when they’re on their back, some people have it during (rapid eye movement sleep), some people have it the second they fall asleep. It really depends on how they’re sleeping that night,” Camp said. “It really just depends on the patient. If they got it, they got it.”
Despite an increase in the number of soldiers seeking treatment for sleep apnea, Camp said it’s likely because the field is new.
“It’s really only 30 years old or so,” Camp said. “There’s a lot of guys in the military (that) probably did have it (sooner). I’ve got a guy that I’ve been dealing with lately and he’s pretty sure he had it (sooner) but nobody was looking for it back then.”
Another disorder Fort Hood’s sleep center treats is insomnia, which can be associated with inability to fall asleep, maintain sleep or wake up too early, Nicholson said. It is commonly seen after a particularly stressful time in a person’s life, but can develop at any time.
“Insomnia has a very high prevalence in our patient population and this may be due to the age of our patients, the frequency of deployments, associated medication usage, pain syndromes, nightmares, depression and post-traumatic stress disorders,” she said. “Insomnia is a very complex disorder with multiple etiologies and can also cause daytime sleepiness in some patients.”