Are you a veteran that wakes up in the middle of the night choking and gasping for air? Do you get severe heartburn at night, and does your partner complain that you snore? If this sounds familiar, you could have sleep apnea and/or GERD, two conditions that can have a severe impact on your sleep.
If you have these two conditions, you could be entitled to VA disability compensation. Read on to learn more about these two conditions and if sleep apnea is secondary to GERD or if it’s the other way around.
In this article about sleep apnea and GERD VA ratings:
- What is sleep apnea?
- What is GERD?
- Connection Between Sleep Apnea and GERD
- CPAP Machines and GERD
- How the VA Rates Sleep Apnea
- How the VA Rates GERD
- Getting Qualified for VA Disability
- Learn If Your Sleep Apnea Is Secondary to GERD
What is sleep apnea?
Before we get into the connection between sleep apnea and GERD, let’s talk some about sleep apnea and what it is. Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder in which you stop breathing for brief periods when you sleep. As your oxygen levels begin to drop, your brain wakes you back up, preventing you from ever reaching deeper levels of sleep.
Sleep apnea can have a serious impact on every area of your life, from your personal relationships to your work. People with sleep apnea may have trouble staying awake during the day and may have difficulty focusing. It can also interfere with your relationship, as the snoring that sleep apnea causes can keep your partner awake.
Symptoms of sleep apnea
The most definitive symptom of sleep apnea is that you stop breathing for up to thirty seconds at a time. This is something a bed partner would need to tell you about, but you may notice that you wake up gasping or choking sometimes. Most sleep apnea patients also snore, since their airways are partway blocked.
The other major symptom of sleep apnea is that you will feel extremely tired throughout the day. You may find yourself falling asleep at your desk, and you might have trouble concentrating on work. This is because you will not be able to get the level of deep sleep that you need to wake up feeling rested.
How sleep apnea affects veterans
When you have sleep apnea, as you fall asleep, the muscles in the back of your throat relax. This causes your soft palette, the soft piece of tissue at the back of your mouth, to drop down and close off your throat. This interferes with your ability to breathe normally and can cause the signature snoring associated with sleep apnea.
There is also a less common form of sleep apnea in which your brain fails to send proper breathing signals to your body once you fall asleep. In either case, you can experience periods of breathlessness anywhere from a few to a few dozen times a night. And you will never reach the deeper stages of sleep where your body gets the rest it needs.
This will all affect your work-life balance because you can’t sleep when you want to and you can’t stay awake when you need to work. If your VA disability is affecting your employment, you may want to call us as soon as possible to discuss TDIU applications.
Risk factors for sleep apnea
There are a few things that can increase your risk of developing sleep apnea. One of the most common risk factors is obesity since excess fat on your neck can press down further on your airways. A family history of sleep apnea can also make it more likely that you develop the condition yourself.
Sleep apnea tends to become more common as people reach the older stages of life. Using alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers, especially right before bed, can also increase your risk of experiencing sleep apnea. And certain medical conditions, including congestive heart failure, type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease, can put you at greater risk of sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea complications
On the face of it, sleep apnea may not seem that serious; after all, coffee will fix the drowsiness and earplugs will keep your partner asleep, right? But sleep apnea can have some very dangerous complications that can have a severe impact on your health. First and foremost, your daytime fatigue may be more than a simple cup of coffee can handle.
Sleep apnea can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure and other cardiac problems. It can also put you at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. You may also be at greater risk of complications during surgery and trouble with certain medications, as well as liver problems.
What is GERD?
Gastroesophageal reflux disease, better known as GERD, is a condition you may know by a different name: heartburn. When you have GERD, stomach acid flows back up into your esophagus, which connects your mouth to your stomach. This regurgitation can irritate your esophagus, causing that heartburn sensation we’re all familiar with.
Everyone experiences heartburn from time to time, but when you have GERD, it occurs much more frequently. In even the mildest cases, you may get mild heartburn at least twice a week. You may also get moderate to severe heartburn at least once a week. This frequency is what decides your VA disability rating for GERD.
Symptoms of GERD
The primary symptom of GERD is a burning sensation in your chest known as heartburn. You may notice this sensation after you eat, and it may be worse at night or when you’re lying down. You might also find that you have difficulty swallowing or that you regurgitate food or sour liquids.
If your GERD tends to happen more at night, you may find that you have a chronic cough. You might also experience laryngitis (loss of your voice), and you could have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep. You might also develop asthma, or if you already have it, it might get worse.
What happens when you suffer from GERD?
Your esophagus connects your mouth to your stomach, and at the bottom of your esophagus is a sphincter that keeps your stomach acid where it’s supposed to be. When you swallow, that sphincter opens to allow food through, and then it closes again. But when you have GERD, that sphincter doesn’t operate the way it’s supposed to.
If that sphincter relaxes or becomes weak, it can allow stomach acid to seep back up into your esophagus. As you might expect, your esophagus isn’t meant to handle that level of acid, especially on a regular basis. It can become inflamed, which is what causes that burning sensation in your chest.
Risk factors of GERD for veterans
There are also a few things that can increase the chance that you develop GERD. Like sleep apnea, one of the major risk factors is obesity, as well as drinking alcohol. Pregnancy can also increase your risk of temporarily developing GERD, as can some connective tissue disorders like scleroderma.
Eating late at night or eating large meals can increase your risk of both heartburn and GERD. There may also be some foods or beverages that may trigger your acid reflux, especially fatty or fried foods. Some medications, including aspirin, can also aggravate acid reflux, as can smoking.
Complications of GERD
Like sleep apnea, GERD can cause complications beyond the initial symptoms you experience. Over time, if your esophagus stays consistently inflamed, it can begin to become permanently damaged. For instance, you may develop an open sore called an ulcer in your esophagus, which can be extremely painful.
Your esophagus may also begin to narrow if you experience acid reflux too often. This is because the constant damage to your esophagus will cause scar tissue to form, narrowing the pathway and making it difficult for you to swallow. You may also be at higher risk of developing esophageal cancer because of the changes in the tissue in your lower esophagus.
Connection Between Sleep Apnea and GERD
So now to the main question on everyone’s minds: is there a connection between sleep apnea and GERD? You may not be surprised to learn that the two are connected; in fact, more than half of people with sleep apnea also experience GERD. But what causes the other, and how do you manage them?
Researchers do not fully understand the connection between sleep apnea and GERD, so it’s hard to say which causes the other. Sleep apnea disrupts nearly every system in your body, so it’s possible that GERD is, in fact, secondary to sleep apnea. Whichever came first, both conditions cause severe sleep disruptions and health complications.
CPAP Machines and GERD
If you have sleep apnea, you’ll know the most common treatment for this condition is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. These machines place continuous gentle pressure on your airways to keep them open while you sleep. They are the most effective way to treat sleep apnea short of surgical measures.
In almost all cases, using a CPAP machine improves GERD symptoms, as well as those of sleep apnea. By keeping your breathing more regular, you may be able to prevent some of those panic signals that cause your body to allow your esophageal sphincter to open. In a few rare cases, a CPAP machine may cause air to go into the stomach, which can cause more frequent reflux.
How the VA Rates Sleep Apnea
If you served in the military and you now have sleep apnea, you could be eligible for VA disability compensation. If your disability claim gets approved, you could get one of three different disability ratings. These ratings can include a 30 percent rating, a 50 percent rating, and a 100 percent rating.
If you are consistently tired during the day due to sleep apnea, you’ll get a rating of 30 percent. If you have to use a CPAP machine to get a decent night’s sleep, you’ll get a 50 percent disability rating. If you have chronic respiratory failure or have to have surgery to repair your sleep apnea, you’ll get a 100 percent disability rating.
How the VA Rates GERD
If you have GERD, you could also get VA disability compensation. However, unlike sleep apnea, GERD does not have its own specified rating scale with the VA. Instead, it gets rated using the same scale as other digestive disorders and can have one of three different rating tiers.
If you have consistent trouble swallowing food, heartburn, regurgitation, or arm or shoulder pain, you’ll get a 30 percent disability rating. If you have two or more of those symptoms, but on a less severe scale, you’ll get a 10 percent rating. If you have severe pain, vomiting, weight loss, vomiting blood, dark stool, and mild anemia, you’ll get a 60 percent disability rating.
Here is a video of one of our Veterans Disability Lawyers teaching you how to use our VA Disability Combined Ratings Calculator.
Getting Qualified for VA Disability
In order to qualify for VA disability compensation, you must meet three primary criteria. First of all, you must have an official diagnosis of your condition or conditions from a VA-approved medical professional. In most cases, your family doctor or another traditionally licensed medical professional will meet these requirements.
Once you have your diagnosis, you must be able to point to a specific incident or set of conditions in your service record that could have caused your condition. Finally, you must have a medical nexus confirming that your condition was at least as likely as not caused by the incident in your service record. Your diagnosing doctor should be able to provide that medical nexus for you.
Learn If Your Sleep Apnea Is Secondary to GERD
Sleep apnea and GERD can both be disruptive conditions that can have a severe impact on your life. Doctors aren’t entirely sure why there is a connection between sleep apnea and GERD. If you have either or both of these conditions and you served in the military, you could be eligible for compensation from the VA.
If you’d like to learn more about whether sleep apnea is secondary to GERD, get in touch with us at Woods and Woods, The Veteran’s Firm. We fight for veterans every day, and you don’t pay unless we win. Contact us today and start getting the compensation you deserve.
They are close, but not the exact same thing. Acid reflux is the process of stomach acid leaking out into your esophagus. GERD is the diagnosis of acid reflux happens multiple times a week. Heartburn is the feeling you get from the process of acid reflux. All of these can be symptoms that point to your GERD rating for VA disabilities.
If you have service-connected insomnia or PTSD, then we can help you apply for GERD as a secondary service connection. Even if your acid reflux wasn’t caused by your time serving, if it was caused by something else that is service-connected, you have a right to apply for those benefits.