Fighting Sleep Apnea

North Pole Moon

A couple of weeks ago, I started hooking myself into a machine at night.

This machine isn’t loud. It’s about as quiet as a fishtank pump. Through a mask fitted over my nose, the machine pumps filtered air into me, literally down my throat, in order to keep the passageway open. It looks extremely silly, but it’s having a big effect on my life.

I snore. I appear to have snored most of my life. But a few years ago, Erin noticed some disturbing things about my sleep — moments when I would appear to stop breathing. And recently, since at least the beginning of this year, I have started to get very drowsy. I’ve always been tired, from staying up late at night to get my writing in, and I thought I was getting more tired from taking care of two kids, but there was more to it than that. When Erin noticed me getting drowsy behind the wheel of our car, that’s when she ordered me to see a sleep doctor.

At the beginning of this summer, the sleep doctor referred me to a sleep lab, which proved to me that, amazingly, you can fall asleep with several electrodes taped to your skin. A couple of weeks after we returned from our trip to Iowa and Nebraska, I met with my sleep doctor to talk about the results. The diagnosis wasn’t a surprise: I had sleep apnea. What was surprising — or, disturbing to me at least — was how bad.

Sleep apnea occurs when the muscles around your throat relax, and the flesh starts to bend inward, closing your breathing pathways and shutting down your breath. Your brain is, fortunately, able to detect this problem and sends emergency signals to your body to wake you up and draw in breath — which usually accounts for some very loud snores. This process, however, robs you of sleep, and it robs you of deep sleep — the particularly good type of sleep that your body needs to restore itself. A variant of apnea is hypopnea, where your breathing becomes restricted but doesn’t actually stop. This too can reduce the oxygen content in your blood and rob you of the right type of sleep.

From the monitoring conducted by the K-W sleep lab, my sleep doctor had a diagram that told him everything he needed to know about how much sleep I had and what type of sleep it was. It also told him how many times my breathing stopped or became restricted enough to affect the quality of my sleep. It was an index measured by the minute. The total incidents of apneas and hypopneas to take place in an hour while I slept on my back: 76.4. Total on my side: 36. At least greater than one every two minutes, and sometimes as bad as more than one a minute. My blood oxygen content was dipping as low as 60%. No wonder I was walking around all day, tired.

Frankly alarmed by these numbers, I accepted the sleep doctor’s referral to be fitted with a sleep mask. OHIP pays for 3/4rs of the cost of a basic machine. I’m currently using one that a company offers on loan for a month, so that they can be sure that I’ve been fitted with the right sort of mask. I’m to take the machine with me to the sleep lab so I can be tested to make sure that the machine is having an effect, but already I can tell that it is working.

It’s not the most comfortable thing to wear in bed, and the fact that the air is literally being shoved down my throat means that I can’t open my mouth to speak without having all of that pumped air rush out of my lips. The mask, incidentally, covers only my nose and not my mouth. You’d think my mouth would flop open in my sleep, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. And it’s surprisingly easy to fall asleep with this mask on.

Erin says that the mask stopped my snoring problem cold — so much so that for the first couple of nights, she lay awake, tempted to poke me just to make sure I was actually alive. All I know is that I think I slept longer and, more importantly, I dreamt a lot more. Indeed, I could remember my dreams, which I hadn’t been able to do for months, now that I come to think of it. And some nights I ended up waking up at six a.m., so refreshed from the quality of sleep I’d received — even though it was only four hours long — that I found it difficult to get back to sleep.

I’m noticing some drawbacks, though: I need to have my nose clear for this mask to work as it should, and since I’ve been a bit down with a cold, that hasn’t always been easy. Also, I’ve found that now that I can sleep on my back uninterrupted for hours at a time, I end up waking up with a very stiff back. I’ve started taking ibuprophin before I go to bed to try and prevent this.

But I am definitely less drowsy during the day, and far less likely to fall asleep in front of my computer or, worse, behind the wheel of my car. There’s no easy cure for sleep apnea, barring losing a lot of weight, so it’s likely that I’ll be hooked up to this machine for a long time to come. But I feel more energetic during the day, so maybe the task of losing weight isn’t such a reach after all. But whatever the case, I’m feeling better already, so I appreciate the wake-up call.

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