I have what?!

I am a 48-year-old, caucasian man from South Carolina and have been significantly overweight for most of my adult life ā€” including several attempts at lifestyle changes and weight loss that never seemed to stick. For decades, I’ve snored, woke tired, and suffered low energy levels. More recently, and to me a bigger concern, however, was sleep had become fleeting. If I wake in the night, I can expect hours of reading in the wee hours, often dozing off again just before my alarm clock sounds. As a result, I have had serious challenges with my focus and ability to complete tasks to my satisfaction.

Sleep apnea occurs when the soft tissue of the soft palate and neck relax and block the airway during sleep.

After bringing these issues to my primary care physician’s attention during my annual checkup, he referred me to a sleep medicine center for testing for sleep apnea, a common but dangerous disorder where a person stops breathing during sleep, starving the brain of oxygen and having the potential to cause significant health issues in those who suffer from it.

How could I have sleep apnea? I told him that my wife of 23 years has never noticed anything unusual about my sleep patterns, aside from my recent late-night wakefulness, and even my snoring, according to her, was sporadic. He was unconvinced and insisted I at least have the test done.

COVID-19 has changed the way we do everything, and this has become even more apparent in the fields of medicine, where virtual appointments are now the norm and in-person visits a rarity reserved for the seriously ill. This isn’t necessarily a bad evolutionary change for health care: Being able to log in to a virtual doctor’s appointment from home is convenient, requires less time off of work, and reduces the potential for picking up a lingering virus in the waiting room or physician’s office. In today’s fast-paced society, these are all benefits that help keep us on the move.

In the past, a sleep study entailed packing a small overnight bag and anxiously trudging to the sleep medicine center for what was sure to be an uncomfortable night in a strange bed. Research staff moved about at all hours monitoring uncomfortable sensors and dangling wires and hoses. Cameras destroyed all hopes of privacy. Normal routine was out of the question. Today, however, most sleep studies are conducted at home, in your own bed, under normal conditions and using portable, semi-comfortable technology.

My sleep study started with a brief visit to the sleep medicine office at University Hospital in Augusta, Georgia, for a pre-study interview and assessment. I returned a week later to pick up the testing equipment and received a quick tutorial from the physician’s assistant on how to attach the chest band, position the monitor and connect the fingertip oxygen sensor and nasal cannula that measured my blood oxygen levels and breathing patterns.

That night, I hooked myself up as instructed and performed my normal bedtime routine, which consists of any last-minute discussions with my wife about the kids, the day or the following day’s schedule and reading for 30-40 minutes until I get sleepy. I held down the power button, and when the green light lit showing all of the sensors were working, I rolled over on my side and slowly dozed off. And just like any car that purrs with perfection when taken to a mechanic, I slept through the night without having to use the bathroom or my brain kicking in and keeping me awake for hours, as is habit.

A light on the monitor confirmed a successful test, therefore I disposed of the nasal cannula and dropped the rest of the testing equipment off at the doctor’s office. Three days later, the results were in; moderate obstructive sleep apnea with a score of 21. This means that, on average, I experienced 21 sleep anomalies per hour, and my blood-oxygen saturation dropped to 85% several times during the night, signaling oxygen deprivation and a definitive diagnosis of OSA.

There it was. That “great night’s sleep” was nothing of the sort, and the monitor indicated it was far from it. My doctor suggested Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) treatment, a non-surgical solution that has proven effective in treating OSA for decades. CPAP therapy uses the positive air pressure produced by a machine to prevent the collapsing of the soft palate and soft tissue in the neck when relaxed, which can obstruct air from entering the lungs while sleeping.

This blog is dedicated to my journey into the world of OSA and CPAP treatment. My hope is that by chronicling my experiences as a patient, not a doctor, others will gain a better understanding of CPAP therapy, the equipment that is necessary and what you might expect in your own therapy. – by Matt Lindler (a.k.a. CPAP Matt)

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