Published May 25, 2012, Pawtucket Times
In 2003, Rehoboth resident Art Warner got strong messages from his surrounding environment about his health, both during the day and at night.
At that time Warner discovered he had great difficulty staying awake at his job, oftentimes falling asleep right at his desk. Coupled with his sleepiness during work hours and his wife’s constant elbowing in the middle of the night to wake him up because of his loud snoring, a very tired Warner became extremely frustrated. His worried wife would regularly watch as he stopped breathing during his sleep as he snored. The overweight, middle aged man was finally forced to recognize the he had a health condition that could not be ignored.
After an examination from Warner’s primary care physician, he signed him up for a sleep lab study, which surprisingly revealed to the patient “sleep apnea.” This serious sleep disorder caused hundreds of short stops of breathing each night, which kept Warner, a public relations executive, from getting a good night’s sleep..
Ultimately, it was a medical treatment prescribed after the sleep lab study that would finally allow Warner to get the sleep he needed and stop his snoring. No longer falling asleep at his desk, or getting sleepy behind the wheel while driving his car, instead a good night’s quality sleep has resulted in Warner living “a totally different life,” because he feels rested.. With this newly-found lifestyle, he has more energy to workout at the gym, and even stay up past midnight.
Very Observable Symptoms
According to the Sleep Apnea Association, 12 million Americans [including Warner] have sleep apnea, a common medical chronic condition in which the person has one or more pauses in breathing, or shallow breathing when asleep The Washington, D.C-based group estimates that another ten million people may remain undiagnosed.
Dr. Michael A. Pomerantz, a pulmonary specialist who reads sleep lab studies for Rhode Island-based Coastal Medical, reports that untreated sleep apnea is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, in addition to traffic accidents caused by falling asleep at the wheel. “Those are all pretty good reasons to be evaluated,” he says.
Snoring, night time awakening and day time sleepiness are three prominent symptoms of having sleep apnea, adds Pomerantz. Frequently, a bed partner may observe heavy snoring or long pauses (lasting at least 10 seconds) in breathing during their companion’s sleep, causing the sleeper to wake up periodically throughout the night, states Pomerantz.
According to the medical literature, the typical sleep apnea male patient is over age 40, obese, and familial. Smoking and alcohol also increase the risk of this medical condition. Dr. Pomerantz, who has practiced his medical specialty for over two decades, adds that 50 percent of sleep apnea patients also complain of early morning headaches.
Diagnosing and Effectively Treating Sleep Apnea
If sleep apnea is suspected, an over night visit at a sleep lab is considered to be the best diagnostic test to this serious medical condition, notes Dr. Pomerantz, who has successfully completed his sleep board certification . Among other things, the patient is hooked up to equipment by wires which monitor the level of sleep, in addition to the airflow to determine if the sleeper is breathing or not, the deepness of sleep, oxygen levels, chest wall movement, and pulse rate, he says.
For treating milder cases of sleep apnea, Dr. Pomerantz recommends simple ‘life style’ changes and treatments such as shedding weight, avoiding alcohol, sleeping on your side or abdomen, or keeping nasal passages open at night by using prescribed medications. A dental device can also move a jaw forward to make breathing easier.
In moderate to severe cases, a C-PAP, or “continuous positive airway pressure” machine can deliver an increased air pressure through a mask covering the nose or mouth. The air pressure generated by this machine is somewhat greater than that of the surrounding air, just enough to keep the person’s upper airway passages open, preventing the apnea and snoring.
“Compliance with sleep apnea is not always great,” Pomerantz, says, because patients may feel discomfort with the C-PAP machines. “For some patient it’s only a matter of getting use to it and finding a more comfortable mask,” he says, because their masks may feel overly confining or obstructive.
New Studies Link Sleep Apnea to Cancer
In addition to those research studies associating sleep apnea with increased risks of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, depression and early death, the New York Times recently reported that two new research studies presented at the American Thoracic Society conference this week have discovered that this chronic condition has been linked to an increased risk of cancer in humans.
According to the paper, in one study Spanish researchers followed thousands of patients at sleep clinics, finding that those patients with the most severe forms of sleep apnea had a 65 percent greater risk of developing cancer of any kind. Meanwhile, lead researcher Dr. Javier Nieto, chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, says that his study of 1,500 government workers studied over 22 years showed nearly five times higher incidence of cancer deaths in patients with severe sleep apnea to those without the disorder, a result that echoes previous findings in animal studies.
A Personal Note…
Clearly research studies show that not being treated for sleep apnea or using your C-PAP machine, if diagnosed with this chronic disorder, is hazardous to your health and well-being…
As one afflicted with sleep apnea, this writer has experienced it all – from “denial” about the severity of my snoring to finally being sent by my partner to the couch for my very loud snoring that shook the walls of our house. Co-workers teased me about falling asleep at noon time meetings or towards the end of my workday. Even with these severe symptoms, I denied having this medical problem for years until the urging of a friend who had a severe case of sleep apnea nudged me to “get it checked out” . With my ultimate diagnosis and finally the treatment with a C-PAP machine, my snoring has virtually ceased, and I now wake up refreshed and well-rested. One of my few regrets in life was losing years of “deep” sleep because I chose not to see my physician to address my sleep apnea.
For more information about sleep apnea, visit the American Sleep Apnea Association’s website, www.sleepapnea.org. If you have sleep apnea symptoms, visit your physician.
Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer covering medical, healthcare and aging issues. His Commentaries are published in two Rhode Island Daily’s The Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call.