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Am J Med. 1988 Dec;85(6):775-9.

Sleep apnea and hypothyroidism: mechanisms and management.

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Department of Thoracic Medicine, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, Australia.



There is a high incidence of sleep apnea in patients with untreated hypothyroidism. Thyroxine treatment is said to significantly reduce the apnea index and length and sleep apnea symptoms. We undertook a review of 10 consecutive hypothyroid patients with sleep apnea to investigate mechanisms and management of these two disorders.


Polysomnograms were obtained in 10 consecutive hypothyroid patients referred to our sleep disorders unit. All patients were studied while hypothyroid. Eight patients were restudied later when euthyroid. Lung function, blood gas values, and awake supraglottic resistance were also assessed in each patient.


All 10 patients had sleep apnea and were treated with thyroxine. In one patient, hypothyroid myopathy involving the upper airway was demonstrated to be a potential mechanism of sleep apnea in hypothyroidism. Nocturnal angina and ventricular arrhythmias developed in two patients, despite the use of low thyroxine doses. Nasal continuous positive airways pressure (CPAP) was begun in eight patients. Initiation of CPAP prevented further angina or arrythmia in the patients with these cardiac complications. Six of the eight patients who were available for follow-up studies had persistent sleep apnea despite an euthyroid status (apnea index before thyroxine, 51 +/- 6; apnea index after thyroxine, 45 +/- 8), and CPAP therapy was continued in these patients.


Our experience suggests that the apnea index does not decrease significantly in all patients with hypothyroidism and sleep apnea when euthyroidism is achieved. Treatment of hypothyroidism in the presence of sleep apnea is potentially hazardous and may lead to cardiovascular complications. Management by a combination of CPAP and low-dose thyroxine is helpful in this situation.

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