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Sleep Apnea or ADHD? Same Symptoms, Different Treatments

Riley Dorris, a 12-year-old gymnast from Tennessee, suffered severe headaches and exhaustion on a daily basis. Her mom, Camile, says “she powered through like a true athlete. But some days she couldn’t, and it affected her mood.”

With Riley’s history of chronic strep throat, Camile knew Riley’s tonsils were the reason for her health problems and fatigue. Riley also snored loudly enough to wake her brothers, who slept in a separate room.

Is It Sleep Apnea? Symptoms of Sleep Apnea

What Riley’s mom didn’t know was that her inflamed tonsils weren’t just causing infections. They were also depriving Riley of oxygen due to obstructive sleep apnea, meaning that Riley’s tonsils blocked her airway enough to cause her breathing to repeatedly stop and restart while she slept. 

Had there not been a history of tonsil issues, Riley’s symptoms could have been attributed to other diagnoses. Headaches, exhaustion, and mood changes are symptoms of depression. Meghna Dassani, a dentist in Houston who specializes in oral appliances used to treat patients with sleep apnea, says many adolescents with sleep apnea also show symptoms similar to those for ADHD: the inability to focus, forgetfulness, or feeling “wound up.”

Connection Between Sleep Apnea and ADHD

A study led by Mid-Atlantic Mental Illness Research Education and Clinical Center analyzed the association between ADHD and sleep apnea in teens. It found that attention deficits were present in up to 95% of patients with obstructive sleep apnea. And according to the National Sleep Foundation, children who snore loudly are twice as likely to have learning problems due to the brain not receiving enough oxygen during sleep. 

Dassani urges parents of adolescents facing a diagnosis of ADHD, depression, or anxiety to get their sleep evaluated. Especially if they snore.

Riley’s pediatrician referred her to an ear, nose, and throat specialist who was surprised that Riley was getting enough oxygen to perform in sports. Her tonsils were so enlarged that they were embedded in her throat, and her swollen nasal passages obstructed her airflow. 

Riley had surgery just two weeks shy of her 13th birthday. She now feels much better. And when the pandemic wanes, she’ll be able to spend the night at a friend’s house without worrying about snoring.

Parents can find more information and a complete sleep apnea symptom checklist on the National Sleep Foundation Website,

Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a writer, wife, and mom of three kids whose ages span two decades. Find her on Social Media @WriterBonnie

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