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Is Sleep Apnea ruining your life?

Updated on February 24, 2015

What is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which breathing temporaily stops, and then restarts with a gasping sound. This can happen many times in the course an hour, and can cause a host of health problems if not treated. I know, because both my husband and I live with the condition. The good news is, that it is easily treated.

Causes of sleep apnea?

There are several causes of disrupted sleep, but two of the major culprits are obstructive sleep apnea, and central sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is when the upper airway becomes obstructed temporarily, often caused by less firm tissue in the throat, (large neck size, or excessive weight may contribute), You can read details in the link below.

Central sleep apnea

Central sleep apnea occurs when the brain does not activate the respiratory muscles. It is not known why that happens. (More details in the link below).

In both cases, the result is disrupted sleep. The apnea periods when breathing temporarily stops can occur many times per hour, and the longer that goes on untreated, the more dangerous the effects on the health of the sufferer.

A case of sleep apnea

Is sleep apnea really dangerous?

The answer is a resounding YES

Sleep apnea leads to a number of conditions that threatens your health and even your life. You might experience excessive tiredness through the day, which could lead to falling asleep while driving or operating machinery. There is an increased risk of the following just to mention a few:

High blood pressure, memory and concentration issues, Depression, Diabetes, Acid Reflux, Stroke, Heart Attack and death.

And the longer the condition is not treated, the higher the risk. So you are in a lot more trouble than just the problem you are facing with your mate for snoring and gasping all night long.

Symptoms of sleep apnea

I have provided a couple of links that give a fair bit of detailed information on sleep apnea, and there are a host of symptoms. Because they are so varied, it seems that many people go a long time before realizing what the problem is, and getting a physician to make a diagnoses. Rather than list some standard symptoms here, I will describe my families experience with this condition. (My oldest daughter has also been diagnosed, and my younger daughter suspects she will be as well, as she exhibits similar symptoms).

My family's experience with Sleep apnea

My husband and I have had 30 years together so far, and when we first got together, it took me awhile to get used to his very loud snoring. But what was most worrisome was that he would seem to stop breathing regularly, only to finally gasp loudly for air. I noticed that his chest was still moving as though straining to get air. He often had a sore throat and a burning sensation in the lungs the next morning.

We were told later by our specialist, that when you stop breathing, and get no oxygen when you attempt to, the brain sends out a signal that you are in danger, and adrenalin is released. This causes you to get out of a deep sleep without necessarily waking fully, and with this happening many times per hour, you will get very little REM (deep) sleep. In addition, over time it will shrink your organs, which causes you to have to visit the bathroom to empty the bladder frequently through the night, (often 4-6 times per night) which results in further disruption of sleep.

In the later years, before his diagnoses some 5 years ago, my husbands blood pressure, which had always been low, started climbing, as did his heart rate. In addition he was experiencing escalating problems with acid reflux, and a weak feelings in the legs. He was constantly tired, and would nod off while driving (I was always elbowing him in the side to keep him awake). If he sat down anywhere, he would nod off in minutes, no matter how much sleep he had the previous night. Headaches, and a foggy feeling in the head, became a constant companion, as did chest pains.

No amount of sleep will help

We had heard the term 'sleep apnea' before, but thought it might just make you tired, so that you needed more sleep. We had no idea that any amount of extra sleep would not help. I went to the pharmacist to see if I could get some nasal strips to help keep my husbands airways open at night. We thought it might reduce his snoring. I explained the situation to the pharmasist, and she said that he needed to see the doctor, because if it was sleep apnea, she explained that it is very hard on the heart.

The doctors appointment

We made a doctors appointment, and my husband was sent for tests. The doctor prescribed a drug for the acid reflux, and the tests included testing the heart and lungs as well as blood tests. All the tests results were fine, except that my husbands oxygen level was that of a heavy chain smoker's. The technician asked him if he was a heavy smoker. (My husband is not a smoker, and we work together in a very physical job). Nothing more was done about it, and my husbands health worsened over the next two years to such a point, that my husband started secretly to get his affairs in order. He was visibly not well, so we decided to make another doctors appointment, and this time we insisted that he see a sleep specialist.

How do I know if I have a sleep disorder?

The best bet find out if you have a sleep disorder, and determine the type and severety, is to see a sleep specialist.

The specialist appointment.

It took 6 month to get an appointment with a good specialist. My husband had to stay overnight for the sleep study. He was asked to fill out a form with symptoms, and then they got him ready for the sleep study. They put a lot of monitors on him and gave him a comfortable bedroom to sleep in. The next morning he was told, that after the results had been reviewed by the specialist, he would be given an appointment to go over the results and determine a course of action.It would probably be a couple of months.

The very next day, my husband was called by the staff of the sleep study clinic, and asked if he could come in immediately. When we got there, we were told that my husbands case was the second worst the specialist had ever seen, and the reason he had been called in right away, was that he felt my husband was right in his assumption that his system would not hold out much longer. He was told that he was on the brink of a stroke or heart attack. He was put on a CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) machine. It is a small unit that sits on the night table and feeds air into a mask that sits over your nose, or mouth and nose if you prefer.

CPAP treatment and equipment explained

How is sleep apnea treated?

Surgery or CPAP therapy

there are different treatments for sleep apnea. Some involve surgery to remove excessive tissue in the throat. That would not work for Central sleep apnea though.

The least invasive, is the CPAP machine. The machine of today is very quiet and simple to use. It does not take long to get used to it, and once you are, you would not consider sleeping without it.

Getting your life back

Once my husband started using the CPAP, there were immediate improvements. Headaches and the heavy foggy feeling disappeared almost immediately, and so did the frequent urination at night. He started dreaming, which he very rarely did before (probably due to the lack of REM sleep). The blood pressure and heart rate started to come down, and the energy level became higher. The weakness in the legs disappeared, and he was able to enjoy life again. He no longer nods off while driving or watching a good movie, and is back to his old and energetic self. For a few years he was having a bit of trouble with the air pressure. It was set a bit too high, but he went back for a further sleep study, and they adjusted it. He now has his life back, thanks to the sleep study clinic and staff, as well as the CPAP therapy.

My personal experience with sleep apnea.

I was diagnosed in 2014. I was in my late fifties, and had never had issues relating to sleep before. However as we age, there is also an increased chance of sleep apnea as muscle tone in the neck and throat area loose some of their firmness. Weight can also play a role, and there are some suggestions that there may be a hereditary factor. (My husbands father and grandmother both had the condition, as had both my grandfathers. And my daughter). This could possibly be due to similar build and muscle tone, but of that I am not sure.

At any rate, a couple of years ago, I started to snore and gasp but not as loudly as my husband used to do, and he slept through most of it. By then my blood pressure had climbed a bit, and my doctor prescribed a anti-diuretic because I was retaining water (I had started having trouble with swollen ankles and feet). That took care of those symptoms for a short period of time, but soon the drug became ineffective. I started to cough and wheeze a little, and the cough was persistent. In general I was tired and unenergetic, but thought there might be a problem with my lungs. In addition, I often would wake up feeling panicky in the middle of the night, and I would sit on the edge of the bed and try to take deep breaths, but I could not seem to take in enough air.

Doctors appointment and result

That spurred me on to make a doctors appointment, and he listened to my lungs and said that my breathing was a bit shallow, but that I was no longer twenty. I insisted that this change had occurred within a two year period and that I found it odd, since I am not in a sedentary job. He sent me for blood tests, chest X-rays and an electrocardiogram. The test results came back negative, so no more was done. Meanwhile I was falling asleep on the way to and from work (my husband was driving), and I would doze off sitting in front of the TV or computer.

During the next few months I would have to visit the bathroom with increasing frequency during the night, and my energy level was way down. I was dragging myself through the day, and I fell asleep on one occasion during a conversation with my daughter. She herself had been diagnosed the year before due to always being tired, no matter how much she slept. My husband and daughter started to suspect I had sleep apnea, and I went to the doctor and he got me an appointment with the same specialist my husband has.

Severity of my condition

It turned out that my sleep apnea was as bad as my husbands, but my symptoms, other than frequent nightly bathroom visits, excessive daytime sleepiness and problems with breathing at night, were mostly different from the symptoms he experienced. For me, the condition also escalated faster, possibly due to age. During my sleep study, the technician called the specialist 3:00 am, to get permission to apply a CPAP mask, as my oxygen level was so low that there was serious cause for worry. I asked the specialist that morning, why they had not noticed that when my lungs were checked, and he said, that the problems is nowhere near as visible when you are awake and breathing without interruption. (Which of course is the reason a sleep study is so important). Sleep deprivation is very dangerous. I now have my CPAP and my life back, and I am thankful and happy.

Knowledge is power

I hope this account of what we experienced will help in understanding this condition, as it often is diagnosed very late due to the many varied symptoms, that often can be put down to a number of other causes. If you are excessively tired during the day, have somebody listen to you while you sleep, or record yourself to check if you are snoring and gasping. If you have to use the bathroom frequently at night, or feel that you did not have any sleep when you wake up, you might consider getting a sleep study, as those symptoms seem fairly common to people with untreated sleep apnea. The condition also gets worse if it goes untreated. The diagnoses is painless and the treatment in the case of the CPAP non-invasive.

If we had had the information in this article, when we first started suspecting what was going on, we would have been able to act faster and save a lot of time in getting treatment, and getting back on track.

Sleep study results explained

Cost of diagnosis and treatment in Canada

I can only speak for Canadians on this subject, because I am a Canadian citizen. In Canada, you have a right to see to a specialist, and seeing that a medical doctor does not have the expertise or equipment to measure sleep apnea, he must refer you to a Sleep specialist. There should be no cost for that.

There is no cost for the sleep study. You are entitled to one per year until you are diagnosed. After that you are entitled to a sleep study every two years.

The CPAP equipment does cost money but the government pays a large percentage up front. I picked up my state of the art CPAP machine in September 2014. I got the heated hose, and there is a humidifier compartment for distilled water, so you don't feel dry from the air. The machine is very quiet while operating, and it was over $1000. I paid a little over $200. You can get an updated machine every 5 years and have the same portion paid by government. Filters and mask cushion will need to be changed every 6 month or when necessary, but they are not that expensive.

If you are on disability or social assistance, you can apply to have them pay the difference, as well as filters and mask cost when these need to be changed.

Hope this information is of help. Be well and happy. Take care of your health by being proactive.

I appreciate all comments and value your thoughts

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