It might be the loudest silent disease out there.
Sleep apnea — a nighttime breathing disorder often characterized by thunderous snoring — is a much more serious condition than once believed.
The sleep specialists associated with New Jersey hospitals, such as Dr. Theophanis Pavlou of Holy Name Medical Center, are trying to wake people up to that.
“I like to relate it to things like high blood pressure or diabetes,” he said. “If you don’t check your blood pressure, or your blood sugar, you don’t know you have it. And you have to do a sleep study to know you have this.”
Pavlou, who is associate director of Holy Name’s Center for Sleep Medicine, said millions of Americans, or about 5-10% of the population, suffer from sleep apnea.
The various sleep centers at hospitals around the state have been diagnosing sleep apnea, which was first discovered in the ’60s, for decades. That’s done through sleep studies, or, more recently at Holy Name’s sleep center, with pocket-sized take-home devices.
The trouble these centers have faced — and continue to — is that most people with the condition don’t realize they have it.
“A lot of people have assumed, ‘Well, everyone snores,’” Pavlou said. “Maybe someone sleeps relatively well and they’re just keeping their spouses up at night. It’s easy to brush off. You can ignore it until it gets severe. But, in reality, it can be a serious condition.”
Given what sleep medicine experts have been able to validate more recently in research studies, it’s more than snoozers in earshot to someone with the condition who potentially suffer.
“Sleep apnea has since been recognized as having an increasing role in many diseases,” Pavlou said. “As we work to extend peoples’ lives, we recognize that this can be a hidden disease or condition that negatively impacts other conditions, such as heart disease — or, really, any branch of cardiac medicine. It can also affect breathing diseases as well as worsen oxygen levels, worsen blood sugar or blood pressure.”
With sleep apnea, breathing is briefly interrupted at regular intervals during sleep, sometimes causing sleepers to wake up gasping for air in the middle of the night or feel tired after a full night’s sleep. The condition can possibly predispose sufferers to heart attacks or strokes.
The hallmark snore of sleep apnea can turn out to be benign, but only the sleep technicians at medical centers can determine whether that’s the case. Traditionally, that required having someone attached to about 50 wires for overnight monitoring at a sleep center, Pavlou said.
It wasn’t for everyone.
“When you tell someone in the office about this test and the need to stay overnight and sleep here, some are reluctant to do that,” Pavlou said. “Some people just have horrible insomnia when they sleep away from home.”
Today, Holy Name’s Center for Sleep Medicine is utilizing the new WatchPAT device to screen some patients experiencing sleep apnea symptoms. The small sensor, which attaches to someone’s chest, one hand and finger, gathers data that can possibly lead to a sleep apnea diagnosis.
Holy Name’s sleep experts wouldn’t say it’s appropriate for every person who possibly has the condition, but for eligible patients who would otherwise be reluctant to participate in a sleep study, it’s being seen as a preferable method.
“It allows us to tell that patient, ‘Hey, we have this simple thing you can do,’” Pavlou said. “That allows us to cast a wider net in detecting sleep apnea.”
Sleep experts not only have more work to do to convince people — as well as physicians — that more people should undergo screening for sleep apnea, they also have to convince patients to comply with the continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, ventilators prescribed for treatment.
Because, when it comes to untreated sleep apnea — you snooze, you lose.
But, just like sleep test methods have become more comfortable over time, the way this no-laughing-matter disease is treated is expected to continue to improve in coming years.
“Once someone is diagnosed, it’s not as simple as taking a pill,” Pavlou said. “The person has to adapt to using one of these CPAP devices. There are some alternatives, but the reality is, CPAP is the tried and true tool. And the device is better than it was even five years ago. For the future, what you’ll see is these devices getting smaller, more portable and more comfortable.”
Reach the Center for Sleep Medicine at Holy Name Medical Center at: holyname.org or 201-833-7260.