Sleep Interrupted

Treatment for sleep apnea has helped Brian McNurlen get a good night’s rest again. Photo by Van Gachnang.

Treatment for sleep apnea has helped Brian McNurlen get a good night’s rest again. Photo by Van Gachnang.

Brian McNurlen knows firsthand how disruptive a sleep disorder can be. For years the forty-seven-year-old Monona resident routinely rose several times in the night to go to the bathroom. The repeated interruptions often woke him enough that he would get out of bed to watch TV or answer emails for an hour or so around 1 or 2 a.m. It was a nearly nightly occurrence that left him chronically tired.

After a couple years, he started having memory problems. He religiously jotted notes and used phone apps to manage obligations and remember names. Eventually he started to worry that something serious was wrong. He mentioned it to his doctor, who immediately recommended him for a sleep study.

In February of 2012, McNurlen showed up at 7:30 p.m. for his study at Wisconsin Sleep in the University Research Park. The rooms are far less clinical than a typical doctor’s office. McNurlen says they are more akin to those in a nice hotel—but with a few key differences. Sleep technicians will attach to patients some twenty electrodes, wires and other sensors that they use to track brain waves, leg and eye movements, oxygen levels, snoring and more.

McNurlen says his technician explained that he might come in during the night with a mask and CPAP device. CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure, and it is the most common treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. It blows a steady stream of air into the mouth to keep the airway from closing during sleep. By midnight, the tech was there with the device. After that, McNurlen didn’t wake again until 6:30. “I was shocked,” he says. “I couldn’t remember the last time I had slept straight through for six hours.”

A couple weeks later his doctor confirmed that McNurlen had obstructive sleep apnea.

By now just about everyone has heard about the common sleep disorder affecting some eighteen million adults, according to the National Sleep Foundation. It is the most frequent issue seen at the St. Mary’s Sleep Center, another Madison sleep clinic similar to Wisconsin Sleep.

In individuals with sleep apnea, the muscles in the back of the throat fail to keep the airway open. This causes individuals to repeatedly stop breathing for ten seconds or more during the night. Most people with sleep apnea have numerous “events” each night. McNurlen says his sleep study detected, on average, sixty-five apnea events per hour. One hour had more than a hundred.

Sleep apnea causes fragmented sleep and low oxygen levels, which together can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and memory problems like McNurlen had. It can also be fatal. Former Green Bay Packer Reggie White suffered a fatal cardiac arrhythmia in his sleep in 2004, and the coroner ruled that sleep apnea may have been a contributing factor in his death.

The good news is that sleep apnea is highly treatable. The success rate for individuals who follow the prescribed treatment is nearly always effective when used properly, says Lori Zobel, a sleep technician at St. Mary’s Sleep Center.

Jennifer Garrett is a Madison-based freelance writer. She blogs about wellness in Health Kick.

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April 2013

In This Issue

In Your Dreams

In Your Dreams

Why a good night's sleep is so elusive

Behind the Odyssey

Behind the Odyssey

How one college course is transforming lives