Thursday, August 26, 2010
It could be the barista making your latte. The cab driver saving you from DUI land. The pilot flying that jumbo jet to your dream vacation. Or the guy driving toward you on a two-lane highway.
An estimated 70 million people struggle each day due to lack of sleep – that’s about one in five people. Sleep deprivation has been linked to some 250,000 traffic accidents and 1,500 fatalities per year. And sleepyheads have been blamed in such disasters as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.
Houston, we’ve got a problem – and not a small one. But only a small fraction of sufferers find treatment, in part because there are far more treatment centers for heart disease, stroke, obesity and breast cancer than sleep disorder centers. This, despite the fact that sleep deprivation can contribute to all of those maladies.
There is news, however, that will help locals sleep better: Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula Sleep Disorders Center – the only one in the area accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the only one where all the technicians are all registered polysomnographic technologists – conducts as many as 20 sleep studies per week.
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First comes the snoring, the chronic daytime fatigue, then maybe a reference by a primary care physician. At the sleep center, afflicted locals check into one of four bedrooms that provides all the comforts of a nice hotel room.
Plenty of time is provided to get relaxed and settled into the room. Patients might read, watch TV, do Gregorian chants or scratch their bellies. Then technicians come in and hook up with a maze of wires – the tangle takes about 45 minutes to apply – which each measure tiny electrical nerve impulses from the body. During the proceeding polysomnogram, technologists keep track of things like heart rate, eye movement, muscle tension and air flow.
Brain activity is particularly telling, with waves revealing which of the five stages of sleep a patient is in at every moment, from the first and second light, initial falling-asleep stages, to the third and fourth heavy, deep-sleep stages, where there is no eye movement or muscle activity, to the fifth and final stage, rapid eye movement, when breathing becomes faster and more irregular, eyes jerk and limbs become partially paralyzed.
A person who is sleeping right will complete the entire 5-stage cycle about four or five times per night. But not Dore Lingenfelter, a medical records coder at CHOMP, who at one time experienced an average of 70 sleep interruptions every hour. Less than half that amount is considered severe.
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Of the 84 different classified sleep disorders, obstructive sleep apnea is the granddaddy of them all, affecting an estimated 18 million Americans. If more people knew how to recognize the signs of sleep apnea, and how easy it is to diagnose and treat, there wouldn’t be so many dragging sleep-deprived bodies through days, years and even decades of lethargy and unachieved goals.
Technicians quickly spotted Lingenfelter’s symptoms during her sleep study. As with many apnea sufferers, soft tissue around the airway relaxes and blocks air to the lungs, right when they enter what would be the deepest and most restful stage of sleep.
The best treatment available is a CPAP device, short for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, a machine that blows air at a pressure high enough to keep the airway open during sleep.
“When patients talk about the CPAP machine,” says Sarah Jenkins, a sleep technologist for CHOMP-SDC, “they say things like, ‘It saved my life.’”
Lingenfelter herself reported a rebirth. “I felt more rested and more peaceful than I had for a long time,” she says. She started looking for a machine – which range from $250 to several thousand – with the help of medical insurance, which covers most sleep disorders.
“I was amazed,” she continues. “All my senses were more acute. Lights looked brighter and I felt more alert. Everything looked clearer. Colors even seemed brighter. This started happening after about one and a half weeks. I just have more physical and mental energy and I’ve become much more participatory in life.”
Jenkins seems to enjoy it as much as her patients. “That’s why I love my job,” she says. “Patients go on the CPAP and say, ‘I slept like a baby for the first time in years. What did you do?’”
For one, they didn’t sleep on their insomnia, and found help instead.