Wednesday, September 28, 2005

This Post Will Put You to Sleep!

I snore. No, that’s not right. I impersonate a jackhammer. Sometimes my kids burst into the room because they think we’re having an earthquake.

Snoring results from vibration of the soft palate. When we sleep, the palate relaxes. If it closes, then when air is drawn in and out, the palate is pushed open and it slams shut in rapid succession, causing that buzz saw sound. It’s the same principle that’s behind burping and farting.

Snoring can be more than an irritation. It can cause sleep apnea, a condition where insufficient oxygen reaches the brain. Some people’s brain oxygen drops to only 20% of normal levels. This can damage brain cells, leading to reduced mental capacity and the desire to appear on American Idol.

Sometimes oxygen deprivation will wake the apneatic up. In fact, this can happen dozens or even hundreds of times a night, robbing the person of deep, restful sleep and causing him/her to be tired during the day.

There is a device for apneatics, called a CPAP (constant positive air pressure). It’s a pump that supplies constant air pressure into the person’s nose and/or mouth via a mask. It overcomes the vacuum caused by a closed soft palate, enabling the person to inhale adequate amounts of air.

How can you tell whether you have sleep apnea? The easiest way is to undergo a sleep study. I did this, and I’ll tell you about it so you can see that it’s no big deal. The attendant hooked up 17 electrodes to my head, face, shoulders, legs and little finger; these would monitor my heart rate, respiration and blood oxygen level. An infrared camera was pointed at me so the attendant could watch me from an adjacent room.

The attendant told me to do what I normally do before I go to sleep. So I did, and as a result they now have a film of me spanking the monkey, which will be available soon at Blockbuster. No, seriously, I would never do that during a sleep study. On a bus maybe, but not when undergoing medical observation. But I did tell the technician that I normally have sex before retiring, and suggested that the two of us “get it on” in order to put me at ease. Well, he was not very receptive to the idea and proceeded to attach the electrodes to me with Super Glue.

As I sat there getting wired up, I thought about how I used to be a young, thin athlete. Now I’m a middle-aged, mildly overweight test subject. I had visions of myself 40 years later, being attended to at the nursing home by people who haven’t even been born yet.

The electrodes were fed into a computer that did a polysomnography, which is a test that records a variety of body functions during sleep, such as the electrical activity of the brain, eye movement, muscle activity, heart rate, respiratory effort, air flow, and blood oxygen levels.

I managed to get a good night’s sleep despite the electrodes, and the good news is that I don’t have sleep apnea. I did snore, but my oxygen levels stayed high.

In the morning, I was glad that I had short hair as the attendant removed the electrodes from my head, leaving behind some sticky white globs of paste. I felt like I had just had an affair with Bill Clinton.

So what can you do to alleviate snoring and apnea? Well, these problems can be exacerbated by a number of things, such as obesity and alcohol, so don’t be a fat drunk. When I drink, I sleep on the couch in deference to my wife because my snoring would wake Beethoven. But I don’t drink every night, so I only sleep on the couch four or five nights a week.

Sleeping on one’s back seems to cause more snoring and apnea than other positions do. A trick that some people use is to sew or tape a tennis ball to the back of their night shirt; this keeps them from sleeping on their back. I find that my wife’s elbow is an adequate snoring stopper, especially when applied to my face or ribs.


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