Meet the Sleep Specialist: Sleep Apnea
If you think about it, you spend about a third of your life asleep, so it’s not surprising that various problems can come up in that amount of time. As a sleep medicine specialist, I take care of patients dealing with disorders affecting sleep. Some of these problems include challenges with sleep schedules; patterns of sleepwalking, sleeptalking, or sleepeating; neurological disorders like narcolepsy, in which the brain doesn’t regulate sleep normally; insomnia, which is the inability to fall asleep; and sleep-related breathing disorders like sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is one of the most common problems I see as a sleep specialist; it’s a condition in which the airways become blocked during the night, causing patients to stop and start breathing repeatedly as they sleep. In many of these cases, we’re able to work with patients to treat their conditions and dramatically improve the quality of their lives.
Understanding Sleep Medicine
After medical school, physicians will train for a few years in a residency, during which they can specialize in a certain field of medicine. I chose to specialize in neurology. After residency, there’s the opportunity to then pursue a subspecialty and focus even more closely on one aspect of health—like sleep medicine. Sleep medicine is a multi-disciplinary subspecialty, because doctors trained in a variety of specialties are eligible to complete further training and become sleep specialists. I came from neurology, but my colleagues have trained as pediatricians, ear, nose and throat specialists (ENTs), psychiatrists, pulmonologists, internists, and more. It’s truly beneficial (and fun!) to work with sleep specialists from these different backgrounds, especially when discussing challenging cases. Collaborating with this diverse team ensures that patients receive the best care possible.
What drew me to subspecialize in sleep medicine was the ability to have a strong impact on a patient’s quality of life. Sleep disorders are fairly common, and we’ve got effective treatments that enable us to intervene and change the course of a patient’s health. Many of my patients with sleep apnea struggle to stay awake during the day and have trouble working and taking care of their families. When we get them on the right treatment and they’re able to feel rested throughout the day, drive without the fear of falling asleep at the wheel, excel at the office and at home, and enjoy their lives more, it’s very rewarding for me.
A Changing Field
Medicine is always rapidly changing, and this rings true for sleep medicine as well. One of the field’s biggest developments in recent years involves the mainstays of sleep apnea treatment—the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device and mask. A CPAP is a small medical device that sits on your nightstand and plugs into the wall. It’s connected to a hose, which attaches to a mask that you place over your face. The CPAP filters and pressurizes the air in your bedroom, then pushes the air through the mask into your airways. This keeps your airways open so you continue breathing regularly throughout the night.
Historically, CPAP devices and masks were pretty cumbersome. They could be big and loud and a little bit awkward for patients to use. But in the last few years, we’ve seen some meaningful improvements in CPAP technology that have made them smaller, quieter, much more comfortable, and much easier to use. Modern CPAP machines can detect your breathing pattern, softening the air pressure as you exhale to make your breathing more natural. They might also have built-in sensors that analyze if there’s tightness or resistance in the back of your breathing passages. When these devices detect tightness, they will then give you a stronger flow of air to keep the airways open. But if you go back into a lighter state of sleep, the machine will respond by lowering the air pressure. These devices tailor the air flow to the individual, improving the patient’s comfort and more effectively treating sleep apnea.
CPAP masks have also improved. Today, they vary in size, shape, and functions, so each patient can address their own specific needs. A CPAP device and mask are not a one-size-fits-all treatment; we often need to adust or tinker with it to find the right match for someone. Fortunately, recent improvements are providing many options for patients, so almost everyone can find the ideal solution for them.
The Bottom Line on Sleep Apnea
I want my patients to know sleep apnea is a really common problem. It can be straightforward to diagnose these days, and we’re generally able to do a really good job treating the condition with a CPAP device or other therapies. And these treatments really do make patients feel better! They improve your quality of sleep, increase your energy level, help you concentrate better, reduce irritability, and even positively impact your cardiovascular health. With the right treatment, we can make a meaningful change for you and significantly improve your day-to-day life with sleep apnea.