New hope for the sleepless

April 29, 2004

By Norman K. Brown, M.D.
UTU Medical Consultant

Difficulty getting a good night’s sleep has been a problem of men and women since the beginning of time. Stress, stimulants such as caffeine, illness and irregular work schedules all are well recognized by all of us as causes of insufficient or irregular sleep.

Some medical conditions, such as frequent urination or pain, may trigger restless sleep, nightmares and insomnia.

Another medical condition — sleep apnea — has only recently been recognized as an important cause of bad sleep. And apnea causes sleepiness during waking hours, which can be dangerous for those who operate trains, buses, automobiles and machinery.

Sleep apnea can in many instances be treated successfully, so let’s review some of the signals of its presence.

First, snoring is often a complaint of your bed partner. The snoring can be a result or a blockage of the airway, usually when the soft tissue in the rear of the throat collapses and closes during sleep.

Your partner is usually the first person who first suspects the diagnosis of sleep apnea, because the snoring is coupled with periodic complete stoppage of breathing (apnea) for short periods during sleep. This causes fragmented and poor quality sleep, which is why sufferers of sleep apnea are tired during waking hours.

If you are experiencing snoring coupled with periodic stoppage of breathing, talk with your doctor. He or she may then advise a special sleep study, where you sleep while wearing monitoring equipment to confirm whether you do indeed not breathe for a few moments during sleep. The test also monitors the oxygen level in your blood during this apnea (no breathing) period.

It is important to understand that apnea can result in reduced oxygen levels in the blood that can trigger heart attacks and strokes. This is why it is so important to speak with a doctor if you exhibit signs of sleep apnea.

If such testing indicates treatment would help you, there are several options, and your doctor can help you decide which, if any, you should choose.

For example, there are medical devices called a c-pap and bi-pap available to keep the breathing passages open while you sleep. Certain surgical procedures may also help.

For many sufferers of sleep apnea, simply losing weight is helpful because it reduces the tissue mass that is blocking the airway during sleep.

If you suspect sleep apnea in yourself or a family member, consult your physician, as diagnosis and treatment is generally covered by your health-care insurance. Treatment can save your life and prevent a heart attack or stroke. It can also help you avoid a serious accident at work and solve the snoring that may be quite annoying to your partner.

For more information, visit the Sleep Apnea Association website at