Sleep Apnea

My wife has been concerned about the fact I sometimes stop breathing during sleep. She first noticed this happening a years ago but we weren’t aware of it being a specific medical condition and we didn’t know if it was something to be concerned about. She’s very observant even in sleep, especially of me. She actually noticed I stopped breathing for ten seconds at a time, and shook me to wake me up and ensure I wasn’t dead. I’d laugh but I’ve learned that it was a very serious possibility. What I didn’t know, until recently, was that I suffer from sleep apnea, which is a condition that can exist naturally or as a comorbidity of obesity. Sleep apnea “is a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep.” (Wikipedia) I did not know of sleep apnea until I went in for a gastric bypass seminar.

When the doctor at the seminar defined sleep apnea, my wife and I looked at each other with knowing eyes. We learned it was a comorbidity that can go away with weight loss. A comorbidity is a disorder or disease in addition to a primary disorder or disease – basically, if you have a primary disorder/disease, it can cause the existence of comorbidities, i.e. they are major underlying symptoms of your primary condition.

The surgeon who I chose to perform my surgery at the Columbus Regional Hospital in Columbus, Indiana, requires sleep studies done on anyone getting a gastric bypass. It is a precaution and a favor! It’s a favor because a doctor recommending a sleep study will have more clout against an insurance company’s desire to deny coverage of the sleep study. It is a precaution because the doctors do not want me to sleep irregularly and create complications due to my inability to breathe during my time under anesthesia. Thank goodness I got the sleep study done.

I have had two sleep studies. The first sleep study was supposed to determine if and how serious was my sleep apnea. The second sleep study was to fit me for a breathing mask (the one that fit perfectly is pictured to the left) and to determine how much air pressure was needed for me to sleep optimally. The “cure” for sleep apnea is pressurized air – or, CPAP (continuous positive air pressure). It is not an actual cure since it doesn’t get rid of sleep apnea, but it prevents episodes of sleep apnea from occurring. The first sleep study showed that I have severe obstructive sleep apnea. Even when I first heard that, I didn’t realize just how severe my sleep apnea was.

I visited a neurologist to review the results of my sleep studies yesterday, the fourth of September. He explained to me just how severe my sleep apnea is. Normal breathing (no sleep apnea) during sleep shows an average of 5 apneas (suspension of external breathing) an hour. Low sleep apnea averages around 10-15 apneas an hour. Moderate sleep apnea is somewhere between 15-25 apneas an hour. Severe sleep apnea lands somewhere between 25-36 apneas per hour. My sleep study showed an incredible 86 apneas per hour. That means that I stop breathing an average of 86 times every hour. That’s every minute and sometimes twice or thrice a minute and I sometimes stopped breathing for an entire thirty second interval. That means that I’m not breathing more than I am breathing while I sleep. When I looked at the graph showing the number of apneas I experienced during my first sleep study, I got wide-eyed, not expecting what I saw. It looked frightening! As a matter of fact, I didn’t even have REM sleep (refreshes the mind) during my entire sleep study, let alone sleep-wave sleep which refreshes the body.

So, for the past several years that I have been experiencing sleep apnea, I’ve had very little good sleep at all, leaving me in a less-then-perfect condition when I woke up. I was not rested, at all. My body, due to sleep apnea, was tricked into believing it didn’t need any more sleep. Sadly, it must have gotten worse in the past year because I have been feeling very sleepy during the day, even if I’m performing plenty of activities to keep my body in motion and awake. There have been many times I’ve felt a drug-induced level of sleepiness, where I couldn’t keep my eyes open despite any struggle to do so.

The neurologist explained that my sleep apnea was one of the most severe cases he has seen. His most severe was a man who experienced over 100 apneas per hour. He’s also had someone die due to sleep apnea. The guy refused to use his CPAP machine during sleep and took a nap one afternoon on his recliner. When his wife came home, she found him dead.

Sleep apnea isn’t simply a discomfort or a sleep disorder. It’s a very serious health problem. When you stop breathing, not only does it disrupt your sleep cycle, but it places a burden on your heart because your blood-oxygen level drops due to lack of breathing. Your heart pumps harder in order to compensate for the lack of oxygen in the blood which can lead to heart damage or a heart attack.

To finish this off, I’ll quote Wikipedia again:

It is estimated that 20 million Americans are affected by sleep apnea. That is nearly 1 in 15 Americans; making sleep apnea as prevalent as asthma or diabetes. It is also estimated that 85-90 percent of individuals affected are undiagnosed and untreated. The Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study found that nine percent of women and 24 percent of men had sleep apnea.

The costs of untreated sleep apnea reach further than just health issues. It is estimated that the average untreated sleep apnea patient’s health care costs $1,336 more than an individual without sleep apnea. If approximations are correct, 17 million untreated individuals account for $22,712,000,000 in health care costs.

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