It should be the most regenerative of times.
No, not the weekend, but the six or more hours a day that we sleep.
But for 40 million adults, it’s not that simple. At least that many people suffer from lack of adequate quality sleep, resulting in impaired cognitive abilities, reflexes, reaction times, and memory. Sleep deprivation is also linked to such conditions as asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease, and learning impairment, but this link is frequently overlooked.
The purpose of Sleep Disorders Week (June 1-7) is to get out the word about such conditions. And what better place to find information than the local experts, in this case the Sleep Disorders Center of Neurology Associates of Eastern Maine.
The four-bed center, which opened in 1982, is the oldest sleep lab in the state. The fully-accredited center also the only one in eastern Maine that treats both adult and pediatric clients.
So what qualify as sleep disorders? The most common of the 88 classically defined disorders is obstructive sleep apnea, according to Dr. James W. Sears, the center director. Other non-respiratory conditions include insomnia, narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome, nocturnal seizures, REM sleep behavior disorder, and sleep walking and other activities done while asleep.
Symptoms of sleep disorders include:
• Breathing pauses that occur during sleep and that are witnessed by others;
• Excessive daytime sleepiness;
• Inability to concentrate;
• Memory loss;
• Irritability or mood swings;
• Lost interest in sex;
• Loud snoring;
• Morning headaches;
• Restless, “crawling” sensations in the legs.
If left untreated, prolonged loss of sleep can lead to something as simple as loss of productivity at work to something as extreme as traffic fatalities.
Often the patient is not the person who initially seeks treatment: “The spouse brings the patient in because they can’t stand the snoring or yelling or thrashing around any more,” Sears said.
The treatment process begins with a visit to the client’s primary-care physician, who refers the patient to a sleep-disorder specialist.
Before coming to the sleep center for testing, a patient receives a history questionnaire regarding their sleep experiences, and a two-week sleep diary for tracking the time at which the patient goes to bed and rises, any naps taken, or awakenings during the night.
On the day of the testing, Sears explained, the patient arrives about an hour before his or her habitual bedtime. After he or she receives a presentation about the process, wires and belts with sensors attached are put on the patient.
The sensors feed information to screens in the observation room, as do video cameras to a second monitor.
“It’s useful for patients to see their sleeping patterns,” said Jane Peasley, chief technologist at the sleep center.
Treatment is dependent on the condition. For obstructive sleep apnea, Continuous Positive Airway Pressure therapy, featuring a machine with a well-fit face-mask that helps the patient breath, remains “the gold standard,” Sears said.
“After a few nights [with CPAP], I’ll have patients say, ‘I’d forgotten how good it feels to be well-rested.’ “
Other options include oral appliances to realign the jaw or surgery to lessen the obstruction. Losing weight and avoiding alcohol or sedatives at bedtime are also helpful. For children with sleep apnea, removal of tonsils and adenoids is usually the first step.
There are many benefits from getting sleep disorders treated, Sears said.
“It is increasingly clear that the treatment of sleep disorders is vital,” he said. “ Short-term benefits include reduced risk of death or injury from accidents on roads or in the workplace from fatigue and sleepiness. Long-term benefits include reduced risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and even cancer. Widespread effective treatment will give a huge ‘payback’ over the short and long term.”
A photo caption on an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the director of the sleep center. It is Dr. James Sears, not James Smith.