Sleep Apnea: Focus on the Physical

A computer screen at the Stormont-Vail Sleep Center tells the story of a real-life nightmare - a serious of peaks shows how often a patient stopped breathing in his sleep.

"Four, five, six times in four minutes," counts off Sleep Lab Manager Don Schuh.

Schuh said the person is suffering from obstructive sleep apnea. He describes it as a problem where the airway collapses, the brain recognizes the oxygen level in the body is dropping and the carbon dioxide level is rising, the person wakes up and gasps for air, then they fall back to sleep.

"This can happen over and over and the person doesn't even know it," Schuh said.

The only way to know it's happening is through a sleep study. Stormont-Vail recently moved its sleep center to Stormont-Vail West to add more, larger rooms. A patient is hooked to monitors and watched on video.

A diagnosis can be life saving because years of sleep apnea can take a toll, especially on the heart. Schuh said when you stop breathing, the heart starts pumping harder to make up for the lack of oxygen in the blood.

"The harder pumping action will increase the blood pressure," he said. "If that happens over and over, there can be enough stress on the heart that over time can lead to heart attack, congestive heart failure and even stroke."

A big warning sign of sleep apnea is snoring. If you snore loudly and gasp at night, feel tired during the day and have high blood pressure, you should talk to your doctor.

Schuh said sleep apnea is easily treated by wearing a mask at night that blows pressurized air at you. The increased pressure in the back of the throat keeps the airway from collapsing.

"You breath better, your oxygen level stays up and you don't snore," Schuh said.

If you suspect a sleep problem, talk to your doctor. He or she can refer you for a specialized sleep study.

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