The Search For Sleep: Sleep Apnea

Posted at: 04/30/2013 10:04 AM
Updated at: 04/30/2013 10:41 PM
By: Brittany Falkers

Sleep, it's a chance to regenerate, recuperate and rinse away the anxieties of the day.  However, for some, it can be anything but refreshing.

Take Phillip Allen for example.  For years people told him he stopped breathing during sleep and he'd wake up during the night trying to catch his breath.

"I mean, I knew I was holding my breath because I'd be afraid to fall asleep," Allen said.

It was an issue he said he could deal with in his younger years, but eventually couldn't ignore it any longer.  "As you get older, it starts effecting you more," he said, "When I was young, I was just active, but it started catching up with me."

So, Allen decided to talk to his doctor at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth.  That's when he received some life altering options.  If he neglected his problems during sleep, it could mean big health problems down the road.

"It was either a heart attack, stroke, diabetes, kidney failure. I mean it wasn't good.  So I took the sleep test," Allen said.

Allen underwent a sleep study at St. Luke's Sleep Center with lab director Dr. Vance Bachelder.  That is when Allen learned he has sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a fairly common disorder, according to Dr. Bachelder.  He says concerns about breathing are the number one reason people come to the Sleep Center.   

For those who have obstructive sleep apnea, the airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep.  This causes shallow breaths or even pauses while you sleep, which Bachelder says can be a big warning sign for other health issues.

"It can be a risk factor for the development of other problems, like the development of high blood pressure, diabetes, atrial fibrillation, heart disease, car wreaks, even earlier death," Bachelder said. 

Before Allen understood the risk factors, he noticed his sleep issues were effecting his daily life.  Daytime sleepiness is a common symptom of sleep apnea, but it can be a dangerous one.

"Sometimes when you get to the stop sign in the car, that's when I really started to worry.  Because you're at a stop sign and well, you can pretty much go to sleep," Allen said, "So, it was that I was just tired all the time."

Allen now wears a sleep apnea mask, commonly known as a CPAP, to bed every night. It supplies a continuous flow of air to the lungs. This prevents the air passage from collapsing during sleep. 

Allen has been wearing the CPAP for about a year now, but says he saw a change right away in his sleep schedule of three or four hours a night.

"My goal was to get to five hours [of sleep a night] and I thought, gosh, who could sleep for five hours," he said, "When I got five and then I wanted to get six, but it took a long time."

Before being treated for his sleep apnea, Allen says he didn't even know how tired he really was.  He said getting a few hours of sleep every night was his norm, it wasn't until getting a six hour night of good sleep that he realized how tired he was before.

"It's hard, because you sleep. So you don't really know, but if you've never really slept, then after you've slept, it's like a whole other world," he said.

There are many different sleep problems that a sleep study can determine.  Even if you're not experiencing issues as serious as sleep apnea, Dr. Bachelder says there are plenty of reasons to get a good night's rest.

"There is something to sleep being, at least an indicator, of what your overall health is," he said. 

Getting a solid night of sleep helps you think better, remember more, and improve your overall performance, according to Dr. Bachelder. Not getting the right sleep leads to more than just a groggy morning.  Bachelder says one study suggest it could even lead to a higher death rate.

"Now, we don't necessarily know if that means that insomnia or low amounts of sleep actually cause death.  It may be that people who have other medical problems," he said, "Maybe if you do have heart problems, if you do have lung problems, maybe you don't sleep as well and that correlates."

So, if you're wrestling with sleep both Dr. Bachelder and Allen have some last words of advice.

"Don't be afraid. Don't think it's silly, don't think it's strange. Always ask and don't be afraid to get it check out," Bachelder said, "Because there definitely is help out there and we have seen it all.  So don't worry."

"Take the sleep test because that's the only way you're really going to find out," Allen said.  He says it just goes to show, that with a little help and understanding, even the most unstable sleeper can finally get a good nights rest.

To get the most out of your sleep, Dr. Bachelder has these tips to catching some Z's:

For more information on the Sleep Center at St. Luke's Hospital CLICK HERE.  Or visit the National Sleep Foundation's Web site for more general information on sleep.