A good night’s sleep as a form of rest and rejuvenation is a key part of our lives.
Without it, our creative processes, critical thinking, and sometimes just plain good judgment go out the window.
As part of self-care, we should all work on ways to improve the quality of our sleep.
In my last Friday Focus article, I shared how low testosterone negatively affected my ability to sleep and the serious problems that caused.
Having had that under control for several years, another insidious force took form to rob me of my rest: sleep apnea.
What’s Sleep Apnea?
During my admittedly very short career in emergency medicine, I learned a lot about how medical jargon works.
That knowledge helps me to break down what apnea is:
- “Pnea” has to do with air (breathing).
- The prefix “a” means “not” or “no”.
Thus, sleep apnea means “not breathing during sleep.”
If you don’t breathe well enough, your body is deprived of the oxygen it needs to function properly.
That lack of oxygen can have some serious issues besides just making someone tired.
Among other things, it can increase the risk of developing:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Liver disease
How I Learned I Had Sleep Apnea
One of the most common ways people learn they have sleep apnea is their partners notice it.
While not every person with sleep apnea snores, it is a common symptom that is readily apparent – and can ruin the sleep of others.
My wife noticed that I did snore, though not loudly.
She also caught on to another sign: I’d stop breathing for a time and then resume breathing, gasping for air.
It’s that gasping that negatively affects sleep.
As a person’s body struggles to breathe, the brain is woken up at least enough to force the body to move or shift in order to restart respiration.
The constant cycle of waking up through the night robs the body of proper deep sleep.
My wife noticed my gasping, and encouraged me to speak with my doctor about it (read: bugged me until I did something).
Fortunately, I had an appointment with my Veterans Affairs (VA) doctor not long after I finally heeded her repeated attempts to help me help myself.
Yes, we men tend to not want to go to the doctor, but in my case, I have an annual physical automatically scheduled for me so there was little friction for me… this time.
Myth: An In-Hospital Study Is Required to Diagnose Sleep Apnea
My doctor alerted the local VA Sleep Clinic who arranged for me to take an at-home test.
Many people I know who have sleep apnea had to go to a clinic to spend a night or 2 “wired for sound,” which did not seem like a good thing to me. The at-home test was certainly more appealing.
I received a kit in the mail that included a recording device to wear around my chest, a tube like a nasal cannula to wear under my nose and a pulse oximeter to wear on my finger.
I wore the test equipment for 2 nights and mailed it back to the lab. It was easy and painless.
Of course, everyone is different and there are reasons a doctor might prescribe a test at a sleep clinic; but, it’s not always necessary.
Myth: A CPAP Is a PITA
A few weeks after I did my at-home test, I got a call from the VA Sleep Clinic to make an appointment to pick up my Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, or CPAP, machine.
A CPAP is a fairly simple device that produces continuous pressure to help keep your airway open to eliminate the obstruction that causes sleep apnea.
When I picked up my machine I was given some very helpful, detailed instructions on how to use and care for the machine.
Once I started using it, I could feel the difference almost immediately.
I didn’t realize how tired and sluggish I was during the day until I noticed the sluggishness all but disappeared the first morning after I slept most of the night with the machine on.
Much like my previous experience with nighttime restlessness, I could tell right away that the quality of my sleep had improved.
Adjustments & Challenges
To be sure, wearing a mask takes a little getting used to.
The person at the sleep clinic recommended wearing it each day for a week while sitting and reading or watching TV as a way to adjust to the feeling. That was very helpful advice.
If you’re worried about noisy machines, don’t.
I was quite surprised that the model I got made almost no noise. That’s good news for those of you who prefer quiet when sleeping.
It is very important to keep up with maintenance and cleaning.
It’s not necessary to purchase one of those expensive machines William Shatner hawks in television commercials, though.
All it takes is 10-15 minutes a week to keep the machine clean and working properly.
Traveling can be a challenge.
My brother, who also has sleep apnea, travels more than most people I know.
He shared some advice with me to pass along:
- Travel with a hard shell suitcase. This is important in case you have to check your bag
- If you’re not TSA pre-approved, you’ll have to take the machine out to go through security. If you travel frequently, this alone may be a good reason to enroll.
- You have to use distilled water in your machine to humidify the air. Don’t forget to plan a quick stop at Walmart, Dollar General, Walgreen or CVS to get some on the cheap.
- Speaking of water, don’t forget to empty the tank and wipe it out so it doesn’t leak in your bag.
- Bring along a power strip or extension cord in case the hotel room doesn’t have convenient outlets available.
Sleep apnea can be quite serious, but it’s very easy to diagnose and treat.
If you suspect that you have nighttime breathing problems, go to your doctor and get checked out.
Doing so could save you from having very serious health issues later on.
For more information, the Mayo Clinic has an excellent article about sleep apnea.
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Featured Image: Paulo Bobita