Sleeping man

When Kate and I were first married 12 years ago and invited our young grandkids to spend the night, they had a favorite sport. Theyíd wait until I went to my room for a nap. When they were reasonably sure I must be asleep, Alex and his younger brother, Parker, tiptoed into the room to my bedside.

      ìSee, I told you he looked just like a spaceman,î Alex said. Then both boys giggled and ran out of the room fearful I might wake up and catch them.

      Why the hilarity?

      Well, I always sleep with my sleep apnea machine turned on. The machine has a tube attached to a mask that fits into my nostrils; it works by blowing air into my nose continuously through the night. Before I knew about the machine, I would wake up dozens of times throughout the night.

      I am a victim of whatís known in the medical world as sleep apnea. It occurs when throat muscles relax, causing breathing to stop or become very shallow. These breathing pauses can last anywhere from a few seconds to minutes, and they can happen hundreds of times each night.

      After such a pause, normal breathing resumes but is often accompanied by a loud snort or choking sound. Most sufferers snore vigorously.

      Although it isnít a household medical term, sleep apnea is a fairly common condition. The risk factors include being male, over 40 and overweight; however, it can strike anyone, even children. Smoking or suffering from hypertension are other risk factors.

      Sleep apnea is a serious condition. The University of Wisconsin recently reported that over an 18-year period, people with severe untreated sleep apnea died at a rate three times higher than those without the sleeping disorder. Other consequences can include: drowsiness, fatigue and irritability throughout the day. Though no statistics can prove it, being sleep deprived can lead to automobile accidents and problems at work.

      Most sufferers are unaware of the condition, much less that it can be helped if not cured.

      My 25-year-old nephewís doctor suspected that he had sleep apnea. One sure tip-off? His brothers hated sharing a hotel room with him; his snoring kept them awake all night.

      To test a theory of what ailed my nephew, David, his doctor had him sleep for four hours attached to a machine, which could monitor how many times he woke up during that period. The test confirmed the diagnosis, showing that my nephew repeatedly woke up over the four-hour period.

      The doctorís prescription was for David to lose weight — a lot of weight  — and to exercise regularly over the next six months. Then he would be tested again. If the condition improves, then perhaps no further treatment will be needed.

      If the dieting and exercise regime fails, David will have to make a choice: Either undergo an operation to remove his greatly enlarged tonsils, among other things, or use a sleep apnea machine.

      Faced with that same choice, I opted for the machine — partly because Iím against the knife unless absolutely necessary, but mainly because doctors say thereís no guarantee that the operation will work in every case. And some years later, a second operation may be needed.

      If David decides to use the machine, Iíll be happy to show him how mine operates; the machine and mask do take some time to become comfortable. It can be disconcerting to learn how to operate the machine as well as realizing that this will be used for a lifetime.

      Sometimes, sleep apnea sufferers end up trying a couple of machines before finding one that works for them. Patience is needed as they learn how to fit the tube properly.

      For more information: American Sleep Apnea Association (www.sleepapnea.org); 6856 Eastern Ave. NW, Suite 203, Washington, DC 20012; 202-293-3650.

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