My Sleep Apnea Journey

But hold on -- is this a realistic assessment of the sleep apnea condition, or is some writer over-blowing the situation in order to push business to the national Sleep Center sponsoring the brochure?
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The National Institute of Health estimates that 20 percent of adult Americans suffer chronically from Obstructive Sleep Apnea (absent or blocked breathing while sleeping), and over 40 percent of people over 65 have this condition. But most people who have the condition don't know they have it -- because it happens when they're asleep.

During the last few years there's been much media coverage about this condition, because it's as common as adult diabetes and asthma. But is sleep apnea really a health-threatening problem? And if so, is there a successful treatment that everyone with the condition should be diligently applying?

I went into my doctor's office last week for my yearly check-up and found myself staring at a sleep apnea brochure (or rather, scare sheet) put out by (of course) the people who want to make money treating people with sleep apnea.

Right in the first paragraph, the fear of death itself was hammered into my brain: "If left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to respiratory failure, congestive heart failure, impotence and sudden death."

Yipes! What a frightening prognosis - what fool wouldn't pay big bucks to escape such deadly consequences. But hold on -- is this a realistic assessment of the sleep apnea condition, or is some writer over-blowing the situation in order to push business to the national Sleep Center sponsoring the brochure?

A few paragraphs later read, "Is there a treatment? YES! Sleep apnea is correctable once an accurate diagnosis has been made." Furthermore, with this treatment will come "increased energy and vitality, weight loss, and the feeling of being a new person." Who wouldn't want that?

Here's the rub. The hard science referring to the consequences of untreated sleep apnea is still in its infancy -- and most medical statements are in the form of 'initial studies suggest that probably ..."

Because my own sleep apnea has been getting worse recently (the condition progresses with age) I've been studying the research -- but am still not convinced that the current sleep apnea fear-hype is at all called for. Furthermore, the treatments for sleep apnea, as I found out myself, are, to say the least, partial and often unhelpful, and sometimes downright dangerous and counterproductive.

Having done considerable work in the field of insomnia treatment, I've naturally watched my own sleep apnea condition as it slowly got worse. Last year I went in and did the expensive over-night test, and found that my condition has become rather acute, even though I don't have most of the symptoms: my sex life is good, I'm not over-fat nor overly sleepy during the day, but admittedly dragged down a bit by having my sleep disturbed so many times at night.

Research is now becoming more solid regarding the sleep-deprivation downsides of sleep apnea (increased depression, irritability, fatigue, memory difficulties, etc). Plus 1,000 lives a year are lost to people with sleep apnea causing accidents. So I finally looked seriously into treatment for my condition.

There's no handy pill to pop to relieve sleep apnea. In fact sleeping pills, along with alcohol, make the condition worse. Instead I was given two rather rugged choices for treatment:

Treatment A: I could have a surgeon go in and start re-sculpting my nose and throat in a major surgery that is extremely painful, cutting away and re-structuring my nose and throat into a larger passageway.

Treatment B: I could hook myself up nightly to headgear that covers either my whole mouth and nose, just my nose, or my two nostrils, so that air can be constantly blown into my nose to generate increased pressure that would keep my breathing passages puffed wide and open all night.

I consulted an apnea surgeon who quickly concluded that I need the full job -- away with tonsils and adenoids, away with flabby interior flesh, cut this and re-structure that - and then two or more recovery weeks of extreme pain and discomfort. When she assured me that 60 percent of her operations were a success, I asked her how she defined success. Oh, she said, success means least a 50 percent improvement in your condition.

So I was looking at 50 percent of 60 percent, which didn't sound very good. I did some online research and discovered many people who'd had that operation advising others not to - because of long-term difficulties and pains as a result of the operation. Even my sleep-center physician expressed serious skepticism about it.

In many cases of course, the surgical operation for sleep apnea does help people, and I'm sure surgeons will continue to improve their methods and discover new ways to raise the odds of success. But I opted for the wind-tunnel breath-mask treatment, rather than the knife.

Unfortunately, after a year of trying all the different shapes and sizes of breathing masks, my report is less than happy. Yes, the wind tunnel/headgear treatment has helped me considerably on some fronts. But imagine spending every night with a bedside machine forcing a strong blast of air up your nose ... the noise is like sleeping through a mini-hurricane.

There's also the constant pain of the plastic cup (or twin nostril ducts) pressing against your head and nose. The result is that I wake up three or four times a night because of the treatment that is supposed to help me get a good night's sleep.

What to do? I've compromised. Because acute sleep apnea does cause wear and tear on the body and emotions, I use my $1,000 wind-tunnel headgear around five hours each night -- and one or two nights a week put away the machinery and let myself have a decent quiet painless sleep the whole night through, even though in my sleep I'm holding my breath often and perhaps sabotaging my longevity.

This is a temporary solution -- obviously the sleep apnea story begs additional research, less scare tactics, more realistic education, and loads of compassion and support for people trying to deal with both the condition and the treatment for the condition.

Meanwhile, may we all at least sometimes get a good night's sleep!

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