You can’t beat the fun of tossing M&M’s into Grandpa’s mouth.
“He would be lying on the couch, sound asleep and snoring,” Justin Weber said. “His mouth would be wide open, so we’d just grab some M&M’s and see if we could get them to land in his mouth.”
Weber tells that story now from an entirely different perspective.
As a sleep disorder technologist at Kootenai Health, Weber understands these days that snoring is a serious matter — and he sort of wishes he could go back and share what he knows with his grandfather.
The importance of healthy sleep and the technology to deal with associated problems has become a major focus of the medical community, and Kootenai Health has one of the most progressive sleep disorder treatment programs in the region.
The 38-year-old Weber runs the lab where sleep studies are conducted on patients with serious or persistent sleep issues.
“Actually, about 70 percent of initial sleep studies can be done in the comfort of your home,” said Dr. Chad Hagen, Kootenai Health’s sleep medicine specialist.
“If results warrant bringing you into the lab, then that would be the next step. But most diagnoses can start without all that trouble.”
Make no mistake, however.
Just because you might do a sleep study in your own bed doesn’t mean the issue isn’t something to take seriously.
“Over the last decade or more, the connection between good sleep and overall health — even issues that affect quality or length of life — have become clearer, and symptoms are taken far more seriously,” Weber said.
“The latest study we have showed that patients who have heart disease or actual heart attacks, 61 percent of them suffered from sleep apnea.”
The scariest thing about sleep apnea, Weber said, is that a majority of sufferers may not even know they have it.
“To keep the description fairly simple, apnea is a decrease in the sensation of air flow as you breathe while you’re sleeping,” Weber said. “People actually will stop breathing for 30 seconds or more.
“If you tried to hold your breath for 30 seconds while you’re awake, then take two breaths and do it again, you’d probably hyperventilate. But that can happen over and over when you sleep.”
Weber and Hagen each point out there are many types of sleep disorders (“I believe there were 84 listed the last time I looked,” Weber said), but sleep apnea gets the most immediate attention because it’s not only common but potentially very serious.
The human body needs oxygen flow to survive, so when your breathing halts temporarily as you sleep — yes, this is why people snore — your natural defenses kick in and provide a shot of adrenaline. That fires some oxygen into the system, and you stay alive for another minute or two.
“But imagine the stresses on your heart when that happens,” Weber said. “The heart is accelerating and decelerating every few seconds, all night long. That’s much harder work than your heart would do while you’re awake.”
The connection with snoring — remember Weber’s grandfather? — is very real.
“Truthfully, a lot of our patients get to us because their wives or husbands finally get tired of their partner snoring,” Hagen said. “The problem is that they might put up with it for 20 or 30 years before they decide it could be a medical issue.
“So one of the things we want people to understand is that if someone you care about snores — even if it’s just in one position while they sleep — please let them know it’s a sign of sleep apnea and they should take it seriously.”
Most sleep disorder patients at Kootenai Health don’t just walk in the door and announce they have problems — waking up during the night, feeling exhausted even after what seems like a normal night’s sleep, and so forth.
“More commonly, we get referrals from other doctors,” Hagen said. “It could be a general practitioner who realizes some problems are sleep-related, or it might be a cardiologist in the case of heart issues.
“And the teamwork goes both ways. We’ll test patients to see if there is a sleep disorder present, and let doctors know what we find. Quite often, they’re the ones who handle the treatment.”
In fact, treating apnea and other sleep issues can involve devices prescribed by dentists (for improper jaw positions during sleep), or doctors in other specialties.
One of the most common mechanical aids is a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airways Pressure) machine, worn while sleeping — and which applies mild air pressure on a continuous basis, to keep the airways continuously open in people who are able to breathe spontaneously on their own.
Hagen believes the study of sleep disorders will continue to increase, as more and more overall health problems are found to be connected to proper sleep.
He urged anyone with even a hint of sleep-related symptoms to discuss them with a physician.
“We might wind up doing a study in the lab,” Weber said, “and the patient feels he got a good eight hours of sleep when, in reality, we see that in terms of actual healthy sleep, it was only two hours.
“You can imagine how that would affect your daily life, just two hours of sleep every night.
“The truth is that sleep affects everything.”