When I mentioned that I was going for a sleep apnea test a while back, I was surprised at how many people I knew that had already undergone the polysomnogram. Was this an aging thing, something that happens as our bodies rebel against all the indignities we’ve put them through?
Time for a PSA! Here’s what you need to know …
Sleep apnea is a disorder that anyone can experience, even little kids. But it’s more likely to happen if you’re male, over 40, overweight, and have a family history. It’s also common in those who suffer from gastric reflux, or who have a history of allergies, sinus problems, a deviated septum, large tonsils, a large tongue, or a small jaw bone. Having a larger neck (17 inches or greater in men and 16 inches or greater in women) may indicate problems as well.
Basically, apnea is when you stop breathing, or have difficulty breathing. Naturally, this can create problems, since your brain would prefer you breathe at all times. And there are two kinds of sleep apnea – one involves a blockage of the airway, when the soft tissue (that big tongue or tonsils) collapses at the back while you sleep, and the other kind, which is when your brain fails to signal the muscles to breathe, due to instability in the respiratory control center. If you snore, you may have experienced the same sort of temporary breathing cessation.
Beyond that pesky “needing to breathe to live” thing, problems with sleep of any kind can lead to everything from headaches, and being distracted at work and school, to depression, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and heart failure. Oh yeah, and to top it off, poor sleep makes you more likely to be overweight. So really, this is something you don’t want to ignore.
On the day that I was to take the test, I was told to abstain from caffeinated or alcoholic drinks, but to otherwise eat as normal, and report to the clinic for 8pm with my jammies. And so, one cold and snowy night, me and my footie pyjamas were ushered into what looked like a budget motel room, where I filled in numerous forms and was then weighed and measured, before being hooked up to the machine that doesn’t go ‘ping!’
Here’s what happens next: “About two dozen sensors are applied to the skin of your head and body with a mild adhesive. These small metal discs are called electrodes. They are connected to a computer and record the vital signs of your sleep. The wires are long enough to let you move around and turn over in bed. Flexible elastic belts around your chest and abdomen measure your breathing. A clip on your finger or earlobe monitors your heart rate and the level of oxygen in your blood. None of these devices are painful. They are all designed to be as comfortable as possible. The sensors may feel strange on your skin at first. But most people get used to them very quickly. They should not be an obstacle that keeps you from falling asleep. After everything is hooked up, you will do a test to make sure it is all in working order. You will be asked to move your eyes, clench your teeth and move your legs. Once it is all ready, you are free to read or watch TV until your normal bedtime. Then the lights are turned out and it is time for you to go to sleep.”
Yes, it’s a tad intrusive. But I’m game. So in a fairly short time, I fell asleep. Between the electrodes, the strangeness of the room, and the howling winter winds bouncing off the building like sonic booms, I’d guesstimate I got about 4 hours sleep total. I’ve never been so glad to get up and go home at 6 a.m. in my life.
And then, you wait. “The analysis of a sleep study is a complex and time-consuming process. A typical sleep study produces about 1,000 pages of data. This information includes things such as brain waves, eye movements, and breathing patterns. It requires hours of work from a trained professional to accurately analyze the results. A sleep technologist processes or “scores” all of this data. A sleep study is not something that you pass or fail. The scored results are simply given to a doctor for further evaluation. At an accredited center, this doctor must be a board-certified sleep specialist. The doctor will review the study to find out what kind of sleep problem you may have. Because of the detail and amount of time involved, it usually takes about two weeks for you to get the results. The doctor who ordered the study will discuss the results with you. If your primary care doctor ordered it, then the results are sent to him or her. If you met with a doctor in the sleep center, then he or she will tell you the results.”
So it was about a month later that I heard from the sleep centre. Both my husband and I were fairly certain that I hadn’t a problem, but since we lack those twelve plus years of actual med school, thought we’d defer to a professional’s better judgment.
As it turns out, I do have a mild case, along with some moderate snoring. It could easily be relieved by stopping smoking, dropping ten pounds, and getting some exercise now and again. However, if I chose not to clean up my act, or if my particular apnea had been more severe, I would have been advised to first test drive, and then purchase, a machine called a CPAP.
This is a mask that will either cover your nose or your nose and mouth. Another version has soft silicone tubes, called nasal pillows, which fit directly in your nostrils, and provide a steady stream of air that gently blows into the back of your throat. This treatment is called positive airway pressure (PAP). While there are three kinds of PAP, the most common uses a level of pressure that remains continuous (CPAP.) In Canada, Health Insurance subsidizes a percentage of the cost, but, depending on the model you choose to buy, you’re looking at shelling out somewhere between $200 and $1000.
(Apparently there’s a thriving ‘black market’ for ‘gently used’ CPAP masks on Craigslist and Kijiji as well … though some might find it a little spooky to buy grandma’s old hand-me-down contraption.)
Bottom line, sleep is important for everyone. Getting older often means accepting certain health problems, but sleep disturbance should not be one of them – the brain and body simply cannot function properly and efficiently without being refreshed nightly.
So if your doctor wants you to have a sleep study, go for it. Worse than can happen is that you’ll lose a few hours of rest in your own lumpy bed. Best case scenario might mean a vast improvement in your health and overall enjoyment of life.
And that concludes our Public Service Announcement.
At the sound of the tone, you may go back to your regularly scheduled activities … ping!