Sleep-Disordered Breathing in People with Multiple Sclerosis: Prevalence, Pathophysiological Mechanisms, and Disease Consequences

Hanna A. Hensen, Arun V. Krishnan, Danny J. Eckert

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Sleep problems are common in people with multiple sclerosis (MS). Reported prevalence rates of sleep-disordered breathing (SDB) vary between 0 and 87%. Differences in recruitment procedures and study designs likely contribute to the wide variance in reported prevalence rates of SBD in MS. This can make attempts to compare SDB rates in people with MS to the general population challenging. Little is known about the pathophysiological mechanisms that contribute to SDB in people with MS or whether MS contributes to SDB disease progression. However, compared to the general obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) population, there are clear differences in the clinical phenotypes of SDB in the MS population. For instance they are typically not obese and rates of SDB are often comparable or higher to the general population, despite the high female predominance of MS. Thus, the risk factors and pathophysiological causes of SDB in people with MS are likely to be different compared to people with OSA who do not have MS. There may be important bidirectional relationships between SDB and MS. Demyelinating lesions of MS in the brain stem and spinal cord could influence breathing control and upper airway muscle activity to cause SDB. Intermittent hypoxia caused by apneas during the night can increase oxidative stress and may worsen neurodegeneration in people with MS. In addition, inflammation and changes in cytokine levels may play a key role in the relationship between SDB and MS and their shared consequences. Indeed, fatigue, neurocognitive dysfunction, and depression may worsen considerably if both disorders coexist. Recent studies indicate that treatment of SDB in people with MS with conventional first-line therapy, continuous positive airway pressure therapy, can reduce fatigue and cognitive impairment. However, if the causes of SDB differ in people with MS, so too may the optimal therapy. Thus, many questions remain concerning the relationship between these two disorders and the underlying mechanisms and shared consequences. Improved understanding of these factors has the potential to unlock new therapeutic targets.

Original languageEnglish
Article number740
Number of pages10
JournalFrontiers in Neurology
Issue numberJAN
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jan 2018
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.


  • sleep disorders
  • sleep apnea
  • obstructive
  • central
  • pathophysiology
  • fatigue
  • multiple sclerosis
  • cognition
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Pathophysiology
  • Fatigue
  • Central
  • Cognition
  • Sleep apnea
  • Sleep disorders
  • Obstructive


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