About one-third of American adults will experience some sort of sleep disorder during their lifetimes, according to the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research.
"Sleep deprivation is reaching epidemic proportions in this country. We spend a third of our lives asleep and while we don't exactly understand what it is, we do know that it's important to us all," said Massey Arrington, technical director at DeKalb Medical's Sleep Disorders Center. "A good diet, exercise and getting adequate sleep make up the triangle of healthy living."
Research has shown that lack of sleep causes poor concentration, crankiness, depression, risky behaviors and traffic accidents. It can affect hormonal balances and increase the risks of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, peripheral vascular disease, sexual dysfunction and urinary and bladder problems.
“Sleep studies began around the 1970s, when neurosurgeons were interested in brain activity during REM [rapid eye movement] sleep,” said Arrington, RPSGT, MBA. “We continue to learn more every year. There are now 100 diagnosable sleep disorders, and the good news is that most are treatable.”
Arrington’s interest in sleep disorders was sparked by an incident when he was a child.
“I was about 11 and woke up one night with my father yelling at me. I had been sleepwalking, punched him and broke his nose,” Arrington said. “Sleep wasn’t an official medical specialty, but my dad [a pulmonologist and critical care physician] started doing his own research. As soon as he found a program, he studied at Stanford University and became board-certified as a sleep physician around 1986.”
Before there were sleep centers, people with sleep issues were often sent to psychiatrists.
“They sent me to one, but he said I was a normal kid, that preteen brains were still developing and sometimes that led kids to do strange things. The sleepwalking never happened again, but it got me fascinated with sleep,” Arrington said.
As an adult, he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and won’t sleep without his CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine.
In 1992, Arrington decided to make treating sleep disorders his career, and he became a registered polysomnographic technologist in 1994.
“I fell in love with the equipment, and because of my own background I’m passionate about helping people with their sleep problems. It’s often a pretty simple fix, and it’s not every job where you get to see instantaneous results,” Arrington said.
The DeKalb Medical Sleep Disorder Center, which opened in 1995, is accredited by the Joint Commission and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The center conducts 80 to 100 sleep studies a month, with tests results examined by board-certified sleep disorder physicians and surgeons.
“People are often scared or apprehensive about staying overnight and having someone watch them sleep. Our job is to reassure them and make them as comfortable as possible. We want them to trust us and relax,” said Monti Dunlap, a certified sleep technologist and office coordinator. “Our rooms have Tempur-Pedic beds, flatscreen TVs, private baths and equipment that monitors brain activity, heart and respiratory systems, oxygen levels, leg and arm muscle movements, and more.”
Patients are monitored by staff who are trained in CPR and emergency procedures.
When Arrington started working in the field, sleep specialists used paper-based machines to record the data. Now the equipment is digital and high-definition.
“The technology has come a long way, especially in all the different types of CPAP machines that have been invented,” Arrington said.
The center is a full diagnostic clinic that tests for common problems such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, sleepwalking/talking/eating and other disorders.
Snoring is no joke
“People make jokes about a family member’s snoring, but snoring is one of the common symptoms of sleep apnea,” Dunlap said.
Loud snoring, snorting or gasping awake are signs that a person’s airway has temporarily closed off and the body isn’t getting oxygen.
“There’s a slight increase in adrenaline. Your heart beats faster to send oxygenated blood to your vital organs. Your brain senses an emergency and takes take action to wake you up,” Arrington said.
When someone stops breathing 10 or more times an hour, he or she isn’t getting enough deep sleep.
For many people with sleep disorders, using a CPAP machine to keep the airway open is a safe and effective way to ensure better sleep. Other treatments include surgery to remove the adenoids and tonsils, and, more drastically, surgery to move the tongue or lower jaw forward. Oral dental appliances are another alternative for some patients. For sleepwalking, restless leg syndrome or seizures, medications are effective.
“Besides the health and tiredness issues, sleep disorders can affect lifestyle and relationships,” Dunlap said. “If someone is snoring so loud that he has to sleep in a separate bedroom or in a recliner away from his spouse, that can hinder the closeness in a marriage.”
Dunlap got interested in the field because members of his family have sleep issues.
“I love what I do, especially seeing the transformation in patients after they’ve had a good night’s sleep,” Dunlap said.
Sometimes a simple change in habits or diet can make a difference. Because good sleep is so important, Dunlap and other staff members often attend community health fairs to educate people about warning signs, testing and treatment for sleep disorders.
“I’ve been a sleep technologist for 20 years and there has been so much excellent research done in the field, yet I still meet patients who have never heard of sleep apnea or know what it is,” Arrington said. “Too many people think poor sleep is inevitable, when it could be treated.”
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