By Mary Jane Luke, RRT

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When I was in my late fifties, I was having difficulty sleeping. I would go to bed exhausted, sleep two to three hours, suddenly wake up, sometimes drenched in perspiration, and then lay awake for several hours, and then get up. When I slept, I would wake up at least three times to use the bathroom. I was an overweight woman who was relatively healthy, I thought. I did not think I was abnormally exhausted; after all, I worked full time and was able to meet my usual obligations of taking care of a family, a home, doing laundry, cleaning and so on. I did notice that I was having some memory problems. Many times, I would lose my thought in mid-sentence. The day that I could not remember the name of the common animal in my backyard (it was a squirrel), I realized that I had a real problem! My problem was not Alzheimer’s, as I feared, but sleep apnea!

If this sounds familiar to your or if you woke up this morning with a headache, feeling just as tired as when you went to sleep, you may need to think about being evaluated for obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea affects over 18 million Americans. 

Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious, but common, disorder in which you have one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths during sleep. This is caused by muscles in the throat relaxing, your airway narrows or closes as you breathe in, and breathing momentarily stops. This may cause the oxygen level in your blood to lower. The brain then senses this inability to breathe and rouses you from sleep so that your airway reopens. These repeated awakenings make normal, restorative sleep impossible.  Sleep apnea is almost as common as Type II diabetes. Sleep apnea can strike any one at any age. Your risk of sleep apnea increases if you are overweight and over 40 years old. Men are more frequently diagnosed with sleep apnea but at this time, about one third of those treated for sleep apnea in the United States are women. Children and adolescents suffering from sleep apnea may do poorly in school or have behavior problems.

Loud snoring, waking with a very dry mouth, mood changes, depression or problems concentrating or memory problems can also be signs that you may have sleep apnea.  Sometimes, people have sudden, rapid weight gain, excessive perspiring during sleep, reduced libido, frequent urination, restless sleep, or inability staying asleep, all being caused by sleep apnea. Other people are extremely fatigued during the day and easily fall asleep sitting, reading, watching TV or even driving.

Untreated obstructive sleep apnea can lead to increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes, impotence, irregular heartbeat, heart disease and depression. Sleep apnea is diagnosed with a sleep test called a polysomnography. An overnight polysomnography test involves monitoring brain waves, muscle tension, eye movement, respiration, oxygen level and audio measurement of snoring and gasping done in sleep laboratory. There is a second type of polysomnography test done in the home. These tests are painless and usually covered by insurance.

Sleep apnea is most easily treated with CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) or BIPAP (Bi-Level Positive Airway Pressure). This painless treatment uses a machine that blows air into your nose using a mask. This continuous flow of air helps to keep your airway open and unobstructed. There are also surgical procedures and dental devices that can treat some Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

Treating my sleep apnea changed my life! After using CPAP for two nights at home, I awoke feeling great. I was not in a fog, even though I never realized that I was in a fog, until I was no longer in a fog. I felt twenty years younger and my usual good memory returned. I had always had a weight problem, no matter what diet I went on, I never lost much weight and I always quickly regained the weight. But, once I treated my sleep apnea, I was able to lose weight and keep it off, not a miracle, a result of treating my sleep apnea. 

If you suspect that you or someone you live with may have Obstructive Sleep Apnea, contact your primary care physician. There are several questionnaires (Epworth  Sleepiness Scale or Berlin Questionnaire) that will help your physician decide if you need to see a Sleep Specialist.

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