Dr. William A. Broughton, professor of medicine at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, says that anyone can suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, an illness where the upper airway is transiently and repeatedly obstructed during sleep.
Sleep apnea occurs when the tongue and the muscles in the back of your throat relax during sleep. This can allow your airway to narrow or obstruct and can cause your breathing to be momentarily compromised. The body senses this problem with reduced airflow and alerts the brain - causing a momentary awakening to restore breathing. The sufferer might wake up gasping or choking. Usually they are completely unaware that it is occurring.
Dr. Broughton, who is board-certified in sleep medicine, said most people are unaware that they have sleep apnea. “It is usually someone – such as a spouse – that tells them about their breathing problems.”
Sleep apnea can occur in children and adults. “The most common cause of sleep apnea in children is enlargement of the tonsils and adenoids. Their apnea can be quite severe,” Dr. Broughton said. “In most cases, however, it can be cured if the tonsils or adenoids are surgically removed.”
In a child with sleep apnea, the disorder can cause sleepiness, poor school performance, and symptoms of hyperactivity.
According to Dr. Broughton, symptoms of sleep apnea include loud snoring, frequent urination during the night, choking-gasping awakenings, morning headaches, nighttime heartburn and excessive daytime sleepiness. Insomnia can also be associated with sleep apnea, occurring in about 15 percent of patients.
Dr. Broughton said that sleep apnea is worst during periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and when you are sleeping on your back.
Left untreated, this sleep disorder can lead to other health problems. “The immediate risk is being sleepy during the day and having an accident – such as falling asleep while driving,” Dr. Broughton said. “Later on down the line the risk of stroke and heart attack and even death from these occurrences increases greatly if the problem is left untreated. The good news is that treatment of sleep apnea lowers such risk to nearly normal levels.”
Two new studies published this month have found that those who suffer from sleep apnea may have a higher risk of developing cancer. According to Dr. Broughton, the significance of these reports has not been fully verified.
If you have symptoms of sleep apnea, your doctor may ask you to have a sleep apnea test in a sleep disorder center. At the USA Physicians’ Sleep Disorders Clinic, located in the Mastin Professional Building on the USA Medical Center campus, Dr. Broughton meets with all patients before testing to assess their sleep and medical history.
If a patient requires a sleep study, they should expect to arrive at the sleep center around 8:00 p.m. when a technician will prepare them for their test. Sedation can be made available for those patients who think they might not sleep well in an unfamiliar location. In most cases, the patient sleeps throughout the night and goes home in the morning. However, in some cases the apnea can be so severe that they are awakened after a few hours and treated immediately.
Following each sleep study, Dr. Broughton said he reviews the tests and personally calls each patient with the results.
For adults with sleep apnea, the most common treatment is a nasal-CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine that patients can use at home during sleep. The machine delivers gentle air pressure through a mask interface placed over your nose while you sleep. This air pressure pneumatically splints the airway open so it can no longer collapse during sleep.
According to Dr. Broughton, patients with sleep apnea should use their machine every night. “When you skip your treatment, you immediately go right back to where you were before you started,” he said. “Nasal-CPAP is a treatment, not a cure.”
Insurance coverage varies for the nasal-CPAP machine. For coverage information, contact your employer’s human resources department or your insurance company.
To make an appointment with Dr. Broughton, call (251) 445-9167.