Treatment For Sleep Apnea Can Be Life-Changing - Genesis Health System

Published on January 20, 2012

Treatment For Sleep Apnea Can Be Life-Changing

Many success stories at Genesis sleep centers

Steven Johnson would fall asleep in the chair while receiving chemotherapy, only to have the nurses wake him because he would briefly stop breathing.

Johnson suspected he had sleep apnea, but at the time, he had more immediate health concerns: He was fighting to survive Stage 4 lymphoma. Treatment for sleep apnea didn’t seem a high priority.

“The cancer medications would put me to sleep. I would stop breathing for a few seconds, and the nurses would wake me up. They timed me at 35 seconds between breaths,” says Johnson of Clinton, Iowa.

Last October, with his cancer in remission and a desire to improve his health, Johnson decided to address his sleep problem. He went for an overnight sleep study at the Genesis Sleep Disorders Center in Davenport, where he slept in a newly remodeled room on a comfortable Sleep Number bed.

After 1 hour and 22 minutes of monitored sleep, staff awoke him to confirm that sleep apnea had interrupted his sleep 42 times. He was put on a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine for the rest of the night, and a titration study was begun to determine the optimal air pressure he would need.

“I had the remaining five hours of sleep on the CPAP machine and woke up feeling much better,” Johnson says.

“Now, I use a CPAP machine at home every night. I wake up easily in the morning and feel more energetic. I no longer take naps after work or fall asleep in the chair on weekends. The difference has been life-changing. I feel so much better.”

Uncovering sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax and momentarily close off the airways.This lowers the level of oxygen in the blood. The brain senses this decrease and briefly rouses the person from sleep so the airways reopen.

This awakening is usually so brief that a person doesn’t remember it. Breathing resumes, possibly with a snort. This pattern can repeat itself 10 times or more each hour all night, making it difficult to reach the deep, restful phases of sleep.

That combination of disturbed sleep and lack of oxygen leads to serious health complications -- from high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke to depression and memory problems. The disorder affects more than 18 million Americans and frequently goes undiagnosed.

Now, Johnson wishes he had been tested sooner. “Going through the sleep test was easy, and so is using a CPAP machine,” he says.

Recently, he came in for a follow-up appointment with sleep specialist Akshay Mahadevia, M.D., who wasn’t surprised to hear his patient’s happy report.

The CPAP machine has a mask that fits over the nose and/or mouth and gently blows air into the airway to help keep it open during sleep.

“Many patients like Steve come back to say that CPAP treatment has made a night and day difference or that their whole life has changed,” says Dr. Mahadevia, a pulmonologist and board-certified sleep specialist. “There are tangible benefits, where Steve can actually feel more energy. There are also the intangible benefits he doesn’t feel, like improving his cardiovascular health.”

Sleep apnea decreases oxygen levels, elevates blood pressure and increases circulatory problems that can cause stroke or heart disease.

“If you think you have sleep apnea -- if you snore very loud, if you have no energy, if you’re falling asleep when you shouldn’t -- it’s a good idea to get it checked out for two reasons,” Dr. Mahadevia says.

“First, we have more treatment options than we did two decades ago and can successfully treat over 90 percent of people with sleep apnea. Second, research clearly shows that sleep apnea affects your cardiovascular system... your memory... your neurological function. There’s a connection between sleep apnea and heart failure and arrhythmia. We know sleep apnea affects blood sugar and diabetes. It’s so much more than snoring or feeling tired. There are serious health consequences.”

CPAP therapy has many benefits but compliance is important. Patients who have problems adjusting to their CPAP machine should ask for assistance.

“A lot of times, it takes education and persistence,” Dr. Mahadevia says. “People may try one mask and not like it, so they put it away in a closet. We can find an alternative to help if they say, ‘I don’t like this mask, but what else can I do to make my apnea better?’“

Sleep apnea is reversible and often connected with being overweight. “Once you treat their sleep apnea, people have more energy and lose weight. I have quite a few patients who lost 50, 60, 70 pounds, and their apnea improved to the point they didn’t need to use the CPAP anymore.”

Johnson concludes: “After you survive cancer, you look for opportunities that create positives rather than negatives in your life. The rewards of treating my sleep apnea have been well worth it.”

View Additional Section Content