I’m sure this is common knowledge to most all of you, but today, the 18th of April, is National Sleep Apnea Awareness Day. All RIGHT! In a week full of terrible, tragic national events, we need something to celebrate!
Increasing awareness of sleep apnea is part of my job. However, there is a selection bias of sorts at work: by the time patients with probable sleep apnea come to my clinic for a visit, they usually come with some at least rudimentary awareness of the disorder, or else they may well not have come in the first place. So it’s nice to use this written forum for the purpose of raising public awareness as well.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a medical disorder in which one’s upper airway collapses down during sleep.
The closure of the upper airway in and around the throat causes your blood oxygen levels to become low and your carbon dioxide levels to become high, because air doesn’t flow into the lungs properly. These chemical changes in your blood are toxic to your brain (among other organs), which responds by forcing you awake frequently throughout the night to relieve the obstruction. These awakenings are often so brief you don’t recall them (though occasional brief gasping sensations or snorting sounds may be perceived suddenly out of sleep by those suffering from sleep apnea), but if this occurs all night long your sleep becomes so disrupted and of such poor quality that you end up feeling tired, fatigued, and sleepy during the day. Sleep apnea is often associated with substantial snoring, and bed partners may also witness stoppages in your breathing while you are sleeping, followed by a choking or gasping noise when you arouse briefly because of the low oxygen levels.
About 42 million Americans have obstructive sleep apnea. Please think about this for a moment: that’s huge numbers of people. It’s estimated that about 25% of adult patients seen in primary care clinics have sleep apnea. And out of these millions of people with sleep apnea, the substantial majority of them have not yet been diagnosed. Why? Sleep apnea symptoms are easy to blow off because 1) they’re usually not physically painful (unless you wreck your car due to falling asleep behind the wheel, of course), 2) you’re not awake to experience the breathing pauses first-hand, 3) you’re not awake to hear your own snoring, 4) people tend to get used to the feeling of chronic drowsiness, such that daytime fatigue eventually just feels normal, 5) many people don’t feel that suffocating in their sleep is an emergency (!), and 6) some think it would be a pain or an inconvenience to get evaluated. Add in our country’s financial problems and increased insurance deductibles, and you have lots of incentives not to make that clinic visit.
I encourage you to consider a few points, however. These days, treatments for sleep apnea are excellent and usually very successful with proper ongoing support from the physician sleep specialist and the sleep center. It’s very gratifying to hear my patients tell me about the dramatic, life-changing “night and day difference” they often feel as a result of treatment. People feel much more awake and alert during the day, there is much less sleep disruption at night, and, as an added bonus, the obnoxious snoring GOES AWAY, making spouses and bed partners very happy. I’ve had patients’ spouses hug and kiss me out of happiness! Finally, it’s important to know that untreated sleep apnea is clearly associated with an increased risk of developing medical problems, including early heart failure, early heart attack and stroke, high blood pressure, and sudden death during sleep.
There are excellent ways to diagnose and manage this huge problem, but such things do not come to pass unless the sleep apnea sufferer recognizes and acknowledges that there is a problem and seeks an evaluation. My recommendation would be to seek the services of a well-trained physician sleep specialist in a sleep center accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). To find an accredited sleep center in your area, try this weblink: www.sleepcenters.org
Happy National Sleep Apnea Awareness Day, everyone!