Patients who are treated for their sleep apnea may see an improvement their sex lives.

"It could be that they are less tired once the sleep apnea is being treated," says Terri E. Weaver, RN, PhD, associate professor and chairwoman of the biobehavioral and health sciences division at the University of Pennsylvania. She presented her findings at the American Thoracic Society annual meeting.

Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person's airway collapses and breathing is interrupted during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times during the night. Loud snoring — a hallmark of the condition — occurs when the airway collapses.

One of the most common treatments for sleep apnea is called CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure). The patient wears a mask over the nose and/or mouth. An air blower forces air through the upper airway. This prevents the upper airway tissue from collapsing during sleep.

Click here to read Web MD's "Sleep Apnea Risk Changes With Age"

Treatment Makes the Difference

Sleep apnea patients who were treated with CPAP for six hours each night had a reduction in daytime sleepiness and fatigue and an increase in intimacy and sexuality, researchers report.

It is clear that participants with sleep apnea had a decrease in intimacy and sexual relations, says Andrew L. Ries, MD, professor of medicine and family and preventive medicine at the University of California in San Diego.

"But it appears that the major difference is whether the patients were complying with treatment or not complying," he says. "One of the big problems in the treatment of sleep apnea is getting people to accept it and stay with it."

Click here to read Web MD's "Mouth Devices Treat Sleep Apnea Well."

Who Needs Testing?

"Those who snore, have a collar size over 17 inches, who are male, and overweight need to be diagnosed and treated for obstructive sleep apnea," says Weaver. "Treatment is effective in improving a variety of areas of life including intimacy and sexual relationships."

Episodes of apnea can occur 20 or 30 times a night, says Weaver. "This results in extremely fragmented sleep; it is like someone waking you up 20 or 30 times a night."

The study included 156 patients, mostly men, with sleep apnea. Participants with sleep apnea were treated with CPAP and then compared with people without sleep apnea.

Patient sleepiness and intimacy and sexuality were measured. There were four components on the intimacy and sexuality scale — relationships, desire, arousal, and orgasm.

Daytime Sleepiness, Sexuality Improves With Treatment

Participants' daytime sleepiness improved significantly with CPAP, especially in patients with more severe sleep apnea, she says. "After treatment, participants improved substantially but didn't quite go back up to normal."

In addition, the effect of treatment with CPAP improved patients' sexuality.

"There was a definite relationship between the improvement in sleep apnea and sexual functioning," Weaver says. "They had more energy and were more sexually active than before."

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By Linda Little, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: American Thoracic Society 2005 International Conference, San Diego, May 20-25, 2005. Terri E. Weaver, RN, PhD, associate professor and chairwoman, Biobehavioral and Health Sciences Division, University of Pennsylvania. Andrew L. Ries, MD, MPH, professor of medicine and family and preventive medicine, University of California, San Diego.