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In his own words: living with sleep apnea
As told to Virginia Mansfield
Dave* was diagnosed with sleep apnea 14 years ago at age 35. The disruption in sleep for both he and his wife prompted him to have a sleep study done at a nearby sleep disorder clinic. Since then, he sleeps with a CPAP machine, providing him with the necessary pressure needed to breathe freely and get a good night’s sleep. Except for the inconvenience of traveling with the additional equipment, Dave is thankful for the solution to his condition.
What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?
The main symptom was daytime drowsiness. Although, what really prompted the diagnosis was that my wife, who is a nurse, would observe that I would stop breathing during the night. So as we talked about it and decided it would be a good idea for me to have a sleep study done. The sleep study revealed that I had sleep apnea. I wasn't getting to the deep stage of sleep, which is how you get real rest. My drowsiness wasn't as bad as some people’s, but it was bad enough that it was dangerous for me to get behind the wheel. I also had a lot of snoring.
What was the diagnosis experience like?
I went to a sleep disorder clinic where they put me through an all night and an all day exam. I was wired up all over the place, and monitored for my sleep patterns. Other than the discomfort of having wires all over the place, it was something I was very willing to do, because I was curious to know what was going on. The outcome was that I was officially diagnosed with sleep apnea. They put me on a continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) machine. I sleep with this machine, which blows air continually through my nose at night. That allows me to breath, so I do get into the deep stage of sleep.
What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?
Initially they said they didn’t think I would have sleep apnea when I first showed up, because physically, I didn’t fit the profile. I was tall and thin, instead of short and stocky, with a thick neck. They were surprised to see that it was there. But, the positive side is that the amount of pressure required from the CPAP didn’t need to be all that strong. Of course, I was relieved to know it wasn't anything more serious than that, because serious cases of sleep apnea can lead to severe heart problems. My wife was relieved because she was able to get good sleep again without the snoring and concern for my lack of breathing. I also had more energy because I wasn't sleep deprived. And the daytime drowsiness stopped immediately.
How is sleep apnea treated?
It’s treated with the CPAP, and every couple of years I go in for an update of the sleep study to be sure that the pressure doesn't need to be changed. It has needed to be increased as I've gained weight and gotten older.
Did you have to make any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to having sleep apnea?
The only inconvenience is that whenever we travel I have to take the machine along with me. It makes camping and getting through security in an airport a challenge. The staff at the sleep disorder clinic told me to get into a routine about when I go to sleep.
As far as my diet, they recommended that I stay away from caffeine. I don't drink coffee, but I like tea. So we've gone to drinking decaffeinated tea. They also encouraged me to not eat a lot after dinner.
Did you seek any type of emotional support?
It wasn't really needed. I wasn't upset over the treatment. My wife is a nurse, so she is very understanding. I certainly wasn't upset over it.
Does having sleep apnea have an impact on your family?
My wife says I still make some noise at night that keeps her from getting effective sleep sometimes. Within the last couple of years I got another machine because the one I had prior to that was getting louder. They keep making improvements to the equipment, so we have changed as the equipment gets better. It’s had an impact on our insurance status. My family is pretty understanding about me taking my equipment with me when we travel, even though it's an inconvenience.
What advice would you give to anyone living with sleep apnea?
My advice would be to seek treatment. There is effective treatment. You really are a danger to yourself and to others when you think about operating a car or other equipment if you have daytime drowsiness. Also you can develop heart problems if it is left untreated. Accept it for what it is and realize that treatment is not terribly invasive.
*Not his real name
Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.
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