ISHPEMING - Obstructive sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep problems that people can have, and one that many suffer from without even knowing it.
The disorder occurs when a person's airway becomes blocked during sleep, and can be caused by one or a number of factors.
Among the most common are being overweight, having a large and/or short neck, smoking, chronic nasal congestion and a family history of sleep apnea.
Debbie Dix, cardiopulmonary manager at Bell Hospital in Ishpeming and director of Bell’s sleep studies program, shows how a variety of continuous positive airway pressure devices fit over a patient’s mouth and/or nose to help with symptoms caused by obstructive sleep apnea. Patients who think they may be suffering from sleep apnea will go into Bell’s sleep center and have their breathing, heart rate, blood oxygen saturation and brain waves monitored while they sleep. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
A number of continuous positive airway pressure masks hang on the wall in the monitoring room at the Bell Hospital sleep diagnostic center. For people suffering from obstructive sleep apnea, CPAP masks placed over their nose, mouth or both keep their airways open with gently flowing air. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
One of the most common symptoms is snoring, though before insisting that a loudly-snoring significant other undergo a sleep study, know that not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.
Someone who suffers from OSA can experience significant problems as a result.
Because they essentially stop breathing while sleeping, they will often wake from a deep sleep as many as several times per hour, though just as often they won't wake up enough to realize what's happening.
- Snoring during sleep
- Repeated fatigue
- Being overweight
- Having a short or large neck
- Chronic nasal congestion
- CPAP machine
When their airway is obstructed and they can't breathe, their blood oxygen level drops, causing a spike in heart rate to compensate.
This will happen over and over again, and prevents those suffering from OSA from being fully rested.
"You can see how that would break their sleep cycle," said Debbie Dix, cardiopulmonary manager at Bell Hospital in Ishpeming and director of Bell's sleep studies program. "People need to get into REM, rapid eye movement sleep - that's your deep sleep, that's where it recharges your batteries."
Dix said that OSA - as well as other sleep problems such as restless leg syndrome - really impede your ability to enter REM sleep, preventing you "from ever getting to that level, so that you wake in the morning, you're tired."
Chronic sleep deprivation can cause a whole slew of health problems, Dix said, including inability to focus, high blood pressure - even problems with your body's ability to regulate blood sugar.
Bell's sleep studies program tucks in patients with potential sleep problems.
While it may not be a five-star hotel, it gives doctors the opportunity to get to the root of sleep problems, by monitoring breathing, heart rate, oxygen saturation and brain waves while a test subject rests.
"Sometimes people won't be getting good sleep, but they don't know why," Dix said.
"We have cameras over the beds while they sleep so that you can go back and review and see what they were doing when something was happening."
If it's determined that the person is suffering from sleep apnea, their "first avenue to explore," Dix said, is whether there are some structures in their mouth, nose or throat that could be causing or exacerbating the problem: removed tonsils or adenoids, a shaved uvula - the "dangly thing" at the back of the throat - or even wearing an orthodontic device to keep the tongue from falling back and obstructing the airway can all help enormously.
"There's never just one answer," she said. "You have to look at the whole person and everything they're doing and taking and all that stuff to treat somebody correctly - for anything, really."
Another common treatment is to prescribe someone suffering from OSA is a continuous positive airway pressure device.
When getting ready for bed, a CPAP mask - which can be ordered in a variety of shapes, sizes and types - will be placed over the nose, or the mouth, or both, depending on the patient, and forced air from the machine is gently pushed into the airway, keeping it open and allowing the subject to breathe more easily.
While a CPAP machine can take some getting used to, Dix said the results speak for themselves.
She said people who have gotten treated for sleep apnea are amazed at how much the quality of their sleep improves, at how much more energy they have, their ability not to become fatigued during the day.
People often don't seek treatment because they think snoring, or being tired all the time, is just a part of life, Dix said, but getting help for sleep problems can often have a profound impact on life.
"People just think that it's a part of life, rather than something that they could treat, you know?" she said.
Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.