James Larson recently checked into the Salt Lake Regional Medical Center Sleep Clinic following some scary occurrences. His wife had started noticing occasions when he briefly stopped breathing at night. And while driving to Las Vegas, he felt drowsy several times and needed frequent stops.
So Larson scheduled a sleep study at the Salt Lake Regional Medical Center Sleep Clinic, where he was diagnosed with sleep apnea. He was prescribed a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine to use while sleeping. By helping keep his airways open, the CPAP reduces the number of times he stops breathing at night, and Larson now uses it regularly. On another road trip following the study, he didn’t feel drowsy at all. “I also have significantly more energy in the evening,” he says.
Larson is among 35 million Americans who suffer from a sleep disorder. Rachel Sullivan, manager of the Salt Lake Regional Medical Center Sleep Clinic, explains that normally, an individual will have trouble sleeping and subsequently feeling tired no more often than once a week. But a sleep-disordered person is likely to feel sleep deprived daily.
“If sleepless nights are overwhelming your nights of good rest, it’s advisable to see a specialist,” she says.
Sleep disorders are highly disruptive to quality of life, causing daytime fatigue and a lack of productivity. Such disorders also pose serious health risks, as they are linked to conditions such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, obesity and strokes. “There is a significant decrease in the likelihood of these conditions if sleep disorders are treated,” says Sullivan.
But 95 percent of individuals suffering from sleep disorders are undiagnosed, she says, adding that “millions of people drive with inadequate sleep.” In fact, 200,000 sleep-related car accidents occur yearly—and 50,000 premature, preventable deaths occur as a result of sleep disorders.
Sullivan stresses that sleep is extremely important to health because “it affects the entire rest of your life.”
The World Health Organization has declared shift work—which often results in less sleep—as a “known cancer-causing carcinogen.” Sullivan explains that shift work can decrease life span by up to 25 percent. Furthermore, “a person who can’t sleep and stays up until 4 a.m. has more health problems and a shorter life span. During the recent economic downturn, people are stressed out, with financial problems and family struggles, which also contribute to less sleep.”
She recommends that a person who suspects a sleep disorder should visit a sleep clinic for a pre-screening. At the Salt Lake Regional Medical Center Sleep Clinic, the free screening involves taking home an oximeter, a noninvasive device that measures oxygen data during the night and can indicate the possibility of a sleep problem.
Common sleep problems include insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome and narcolepsy. Sullivan estimates that insomnia is both the most common and hardest-to-address sleep problem. It involves difficulty initiating sleep or staying asleep, repeated nightly awakenings, daytime fatigue and restlessness.
“People can keep a sleep diary of their routines and see how long they sleep to help determine treatment options,” she says. Insomnia is often treated with medicine, but simple techniques like getting sufficient exercise, avoiding stimulating or upsetting conversations near bedtime, and practicing calming bedtime routines such as a warm bath and reading a book, “can help prepare your body to desire rest.”
A CPAP machine is used for patients, such as Larson, who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which occurs when a patient stops breathing during sleep, usually because the airways close off. This stoppage causes the person to wake up, even without realizing it, causing fatigue, distractibility and irritability. The CPAP keeps the airways open during sleep to maintain breathing.
Restless legs syndrome, which includes excessive daytime sleepiness, restless sleep and nightly leg jerks, is “both common and destructive, but also easily treated,” says Sullivan. “An iron level test can help determine the cause. There is also a medication to stop you from moving your legs around.”
Narcolepsy is less common, “but can create serious problems, such as excessive sleepiness, sudden muscular weakness, becoming sleepy when excited or angry and sleep paralysis,” explains Sullivan. Narcolepsy usually must be treated with medication, “especially if the person needs to drive, because driving is very dangerous if you might fall asleep unwittingly.” She adds that newer medications such as Provigil and Nuvigil are not stimulant-based and “do a fantastic job of assisting a person with diagnosed narcolepsy to stay awake and alert during the day. The person does not feel overly stimulated, but merely feels awake, alert and able to function.”
“The whole point of treating sleep disorders is to help a person feel well-rested and able to function in daily life,” says Sullivan.