It’s 10:30 in the morning, and you’re falling asleep. Again. Even after all that coffee. You don’t know what’s wrong. You’d never had a problem waking up early before, but over the last two weeks, it’s been a tremendous struggle just to get out of bed, much less make it through an entire workday. You can’t keep your eyes open and people have noticed. It’s embarrassing, but you’re still not sure if this is actually a medical condition or just a sign that you should go to bed earlier. Do I have sleep apnea?
If you’ve ever felt like this, know that you’re not alone. If you’ve been feeling similar effects, or if you’re finding yourself waking up frequently or snoring loudly throughout the night, you may have obstructive sleep apnea. While some demographics are more prone to acquiring this condition than others, sleep apnea affects people of all ages, races, and genders, and it can arise at any time.
Ginger is one patient who never thought she’d have to worry about sleep apnea. When she was just 20 years old, she started noticing that she was falling asleep in class: “I could hardly stay awake, even after coffee. My head would bob downwards and I would wake up suddenly.” Initially confused by what was happening, Ginger’s symptoms only got worse: “I would have hallucinations. The lights would start moving and suddenly I thought people were waving at me.”
While Ginger tried to manage her symptoms, she found it tough to get an accurate diagnosis. Doctors, perhaps overlooking the chance that an otherwise healthy 20-year-old girl could have a condition that generally affects older and heavier people, initially struggled to give her answers: “I (saw) an immunologist, an ENT specialist, a plastic surgeon, and numerous other doctors. They didn’t work.” One physician even prescribed medication to treat narcolepsy, which killed her appetite without relieving any symptoms.
Eventually though, a clearer picture emerged for Ginger. Noting that loud snoring is oftentimes an indicator of sleep apnea, one doctor told Ginger to record herself while she slept one night: “People had always told me I snored and I found that… yeah, I snored. It was loud,” she said with a laugh. At that point, things clicked for the physician.
The doctor started Ginger on CPAP therapy, prescribing nightly use of a CPAP mask. Over time, her sleep apnea became manageable. She started sleeping more, and that, combined with CPAP equipment and regular exercise, made her sleep apnea manageable.
Initially, Ginger worried that the bulky looking masks would be weird and uncomfortable. Like anyone else, she went through an adjustment period acclimating to CPAP therapy. She isn’t married, so she didn’t have to wear the mask around others, but it’s worth mentioning that she might have found a partner or a spouse to provide support for her therapy.
Dan’s wife has sleep apnea, and he’s noticed a dramatic uptick in the quality of his wife’s sleep since she started CPAP therapy – as well as his own. When I asked Dan if he noticed a difference in how he slept he responded enthusiastically: “my sleep improved dramatically when she began to use her CPAP regularly… I am a light sleeper, and even if we went to sleep with her not snoring, she would often begin to snore in the middle of the night and I would awaken.” For Dan, it got so bad that he was having trouble sleeping enough to work effectively. They tried everything — “we even slept in separate bedrooms” – but nothing worked until CPAP.
Dan also offers a cautionary tale. At first, his wife didn’t like to use her CPAP mask, and avoided wearing it. After a time though, she began having heart palpitations and chest pains. She became convinced that her sleep apnea was causing them, and while Dan isn’t so sure, he has noticed that she’s been much healthier since she started using her machine nightly: “she would say her health improved, and I think it did also. (Her health problems) also helped her overcome the discomfort of using it.”
While there’s no telling whether there was a link between sleep apnea and Dan’s wife’s medical problems, sleep apnea is linked to heart disease, and CPAP therapy is very important. Sleep apnea can affect people in all demographics, and for anyone with the condition, proper and regular treatment can improve both health and quality of life. Adjusting to CPAP therapy, like any therapy, can take time. But the results justify the effort and, as Dan’s wife found, spouses and partners will almost always be supportive.