Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Good Night's Sleep

"My name is David, and I have sleep apnea. I've been sleeping well for seven days now." Does this sound like an AA meeting? There are more parallels than you might think. One week ago, I finally decided to do something about a sleep problem that had been tormenting me and my family for years. Now just one week later I feel like a new man, and wish I hadn't waited so long to take action.

My descent into sleep problems starts with my family. My Dad would always take a nap on the couch every Sunday afternoon, and the snoring was truly awful. There was no refuge from that snoring, you could hear it from anywhere in the house. Many sleep disorders are hereditary, and sure enough as an adult I found I had the same problem. Lots of people snore, so it never occurred to me that this was anything other than something to put up with.

The snoring grew worse over time, especially over the last few years. It was now more than an annoyance; it was making it impossible for me and my wife to get a good night's sleep. I would have trouble breathing, which would cause me to wake up several times throughout the night. Occasionally I would wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, gasping for air. I tried to compensate for my sleep problem by sleeping on my side instead of my back, but that led to chronic shoulder and neck pain during the daytime.

Finally things got to the point where my wife would have to leave the room in the middle of the night if she was going to get any sleep. I started sleeping downstairs in the guest room to spare her this nightly ritual. Anthony Burgess once said, "Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone." The man knew what he was talking about. Still I did nothing about the problem.

The cumulative lack of sleep would make me very tired in the daytime. I was still able to get my work done each week through a supreme effort, but it was a sad way to exist, living life through a fog of drowsiness. About 10 times in the last year I even fell asleep on the freeway, which is incredibly scary. Even with this clear danger to myself and to others, I didn't act.

In the last year, I started thinking seriously about doing something about my sleep. My reluctance was partly rooted in having a busy schedule, and also the conviction that something as natural as sleep shouldn't require medical help. My colleague Mickey Williams had been telling me how his sleep apnea had been turned around by a CPAP machine and what a difference it had made to his quality of life. His testimony made a big impression on me.

Finally, I reached a turning point. Last month, my in-laws came to visit. While driving them back to the airport, they staged an intervention. "We heard you snoring last night and it sounded like a wild animal," said my mother-in-law. "You've really got to do something," said my father-in-law. I agreed at long last to finally take some action.

There happens be a sleep center not far from the Neudesic Irvine office, and I made an appointment to see a sleep specialist. I had to fill out some forms describing my symptoms, and log my sleep behavior for a week. When I saw the doctor, he took one look down my throat--apparently I have a narrow air passageway--and declared me an emergency case. That weekend, I was scheduled for a sleep study.

In a sleep study, you come into the sleep center and sleep overnight in a private room so you can be observed. The sleep technician connected about 25 sensors and electrodes to me--mostly on my head--which allowed them to monitor everything from brainwaves to leg motion to oxygen level. Feeling somewhat like a science experiment with all those wires, I did my best to fall asleep and eventually I did.

In the middle of the night, I was awakened. They had enough data on my problems, and wanted to see how I did with a CPAP machine. They strapped a facemask on me and told me go back to sleep. It was a little hard to fall asleep at first but before I knew it morning had arrived and it was time to go home. Even then, I felt more refreshed than usual just from the half-night on the machine.

The results from my sleep study were eye-opening: I had stopped breathing 159 times in the first few hours I had been observed and my oxygen level was down to 66%. Fortunately, when I was placed on the machine, my oxygen level went up to 96%.

I was sent home with a loaner CPAP machine, and a few days later I had a machine of my own. CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, and all that means is that air is flowing into your nose and down into your mouth and throat. The idea is that this opens up your airway blockage and you get the oxygen you need. For some people this takes getting used to, but I had no problem even on the first night. About all you have to do is remember to keep your mouth closed; otherwise you're breathing normally. The machine is very quiet, the only noise is the whisper of air flowing and your own breathing.

The first morning after trying this at home, I felt like a new man! I had slept through the night, on my back, without waking up, for the first time in many years. I was alert. I felt great. The doctor told me this was common: 95% of his patients have that reaction. I now feel this way every morning.

If you're having sleep problems, don't be in denial as I was for many years. Modern medicine can really help. Get the problem looked at and make a change for the better. Your life will improve and those around you will be better off as well.

1 comment:

Joy Engstrom said...

Awesome, David. Marvin is one of those 95%. I remember he said the first morning after getting the CPAP, "My legs feel like spaghetti." Unfortunately, it took him falling asleep on the freeway and totalling our car for us to realize his problem. Glad you have been protected from that all these years. Enjoy your "new life!"