I’m still trying to get over the fact we’re into football season already. Monday night has millions of people glued to televisions for their pro games. This past week a news brief reported on Minnesota Vikings player Percy Harvin, who lost consciousness and had to leave practice in an ambulance on August 19th. It was a scary incident that led to, of all things, a sleep test.
Harvin is a long-time sufferer of migraines, and at first he thought his collapse on the field was solely related to another headache. But it turns out that his problem is much simpler than that: an overnight sleep test determined that Harvin has sleep apnea. Eight times during the sleep test he stopped breathing for up to ten seconds at a time. The doctors suspect Harvin wasn’t getting enough oxygen while sleeping, which clearly affected his performance during the day.
The reason I call Harvin’s problem “simple” is because migraines can be very challenging to prevent and treat. They are still quite a mystery. But sleep apnea has a clear solution that works on many people. The CPAP device helps regulate a person’s breathing while sleeping, and no sooner did Harvin start using one than his sleep was transformed. And so was his track record with migraines: he no longer needs medication for them. I guess a good night’s sleep is enough to keep his migraines in check.
Harvin’s recent experience brings to light a lot of similar health concerns for football players:
- The nature of the sport raises their risk for physical injury, head trauma, and fractures.
- Defensive players are encouraged to keep a certain amount of weight on, so they tend to be “overweight” according to standard body-mass-index charts, and live with a heighted risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke, etc.
- Having a sleep disorder exacerbates these risks.
But here’s something interesting: a new study shoots down prior studies that have suggested that the prevalence of sleep disordered breathing (SDB) among NFL players is disproportionately high. According to this latest study, which examined a total of 137 active veteran players from 6 NFL teams, SDB wasn’t nearly as pervasive among players as you’d imagine. It was “modest,” predominately “mild” and any SDB documented did not account for excess cardiovascular risk factors.
I admit, I was scratching my head at this one. I would have guessed that the scientists confirmed the obvious—that football players are more likely to have sleep disordered breathing, which in turn increases their risk for cardiovascular problems. What really surprised me was reading that linemen and non-linemen were no different in their prevalence or severity of SDB!
If there’s one takeaway to highlight here it’s the fact sleep can be the ticket to a reduced risk for headaches and migraines. There’s plenty of research to back this up. And you don’t have to be a professional football player to appreciate that!
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™