Bruce Zartman, Assistant Vice President of Supply Chain and Perioperative Services at EAMC, does not fit the traditional mold of someone who might suffer from sleep apnea. A healthy, active person who is not overweight, he was shocked when he heard his diagnosis. “I snored loudly all my life,” Zartman says. “My father and brothers all snore and it seemed normal to me. I was not falling asleep at traffic lights or sluggish during the day, which made me think it was not possible that I suffered from sleep apnea.”
Zartman’s wife, a nurse at EAMC, had noticed that he sometimes stopped breathing during the night and encouraged him to undergo a sleep study. Thinking that the tests would return negative, Zartman underwent a sleep study at the Sleep Disorders Centers of EAMC, and the results clearly showed that he suffered from obstructive sleep apnea.
Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when a person’s airway closes or narrows during sleep, stopping or reducing breathing, which lowers the oxygen level. This can lead to small awakenings from sleep. These events can occur hundreds of times a night, resulting in excessive sleepiness, and, over time, the constant struggle for oxygen and restful sleep can lead to dangerous health conditions.
According to Dr. Joseph Leuschke, a physician at the Sleep Disorders Centers of EAMC, not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, but it is a major indicator of the disorder. “Overweight males who are more than 40 years old are at a much higher risk for sleep apnea,” Dr. Leuschke explains. “However, people who are not overweight can also develop sleep apnea. If you have a family history of sleep apnea, your risk greatly increases, regardless of age, gender or body type.”
Sleep apnea is the most common disorder among men and women that is treated at the Sleep Disorders Centers of EAMC. More than 18 million people in the United States suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, according to the National Sleep Foundation. While sleep apnea affects a large portion of people in the United States, many have never been diagnosed or treated for the condition.
Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, can cause major disruptions to a person’s life and lead to serious health conditions. “If left untreated, sleep apnea will definitely worsen over time,” Dr. Leuschke says. “High blood pressure, heart disease and strokes are all conditions that can be caused by sleep apnea if not treated.”
Diagnosis for sleep disorders is determined by a sleep study. If a person experiences any of the common symptoms of a sleep disorder, their primary care physician may refer them for a sleep study. In a sleep study, a person spends one or more nights sleeping at either of the Sleep Center locations (Opelika or Valley) and is observed by sleep specialists. A sleep report will help the sleep physician to define and diagnose the problem and recommend treatment.
Sleep disorders usually respond well to appropriate treatment. Once a person is diagnosed, there are several different options to treat the disorder. “Positional therapy, weight loss, consideration of surgery, oral appliance and CPAP therapy are all considered based on the patient’s needs,” Dr. Leuschke says. “If someone only struggles to breathe when they are lying in a certain position, changing the position they sleep in can improve their sleep. Overweight patients are encouraged to lose weight. However, sleep apnea promotes weight gain and can make it extremely difficult for patients to lose weight.”
One of the most common sleep apnea treatments is PAP (positive airway pressure) therapy. The most commonly used PAP therapy is CPAP, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure, and involves a machine that blows air into a tube which is connected to a mask worn by the user. The pressure from the machine prevents the airway from collapsing or becoming blocked. Although PAP therapy is the most effective treatment for sleep apnea, some people have a low tolerance for wearing the mask.
When Zartman was prescribed a CPAP, which he laughingly calls his snorkel, his life dramatically changed. “I would tell anyone who starts wearing a CPAP that the first six months are the most difficult,” Zartman says. “Wearing a CPAP is a commitment, but after the first six months your life will improve because of the increase in restful sleep you get each night. My advice to anyone who is diagnosed with sleep apnea is to stick with wearing your CPAP. Adjusting to life with a CPAP devise is difficult at first, but well worth it long-term.
“Since my diagnosis, I now notice people who might have sleep apnea regularly,” Zartman says. “If you are falling asleep in meetings and always tired, it might be more than just normal stress and lack of sleep. Similar to myself, I think there are a lot of people who have had sleep apnea for a long time and never realized it. If you think you might suffer from some of the symptoms of sleep apnea, I recommend getting a sleep study. In the four years since my diagnosis, my CPAP has made such a difference in my life and I don’t go anywhere without it.”