Strategies for a Better Night's Sleep: Conquering Sleep Apnea
Snoring may seem like a superficial annoyance. But oftentimes it's linked to the potentially serious disorder called sleep apnea. Sleep apnea causes the sufferer to stop breathing momentarily, sometimes several times a night. Over time, sleep apnea can increase one's risk for high blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack.
Overcoming sleep apnea doesn't happen overnight. "Most doctors just put patients on a CPAP [continuous positive airway pressure device]," says Rosalind Cartwright, PhD, founder of the Sleep Disorders Center at Rush University Medical Center. "But follow-up is so important."
Just getting apnea sufferers to wear the CPAP contraption can be a feat in itself. The unsightly device worn at night includes mask, tubes, and fan. Though it may resemble an elaborate Halloween mask, it starts the process of getting a sounder slumber. The fans apply air pressure, pushing the wearer's tongue forward and opening the throat to allow adequate air passage. That, in turn, reduces snoring and apnea disturbances. "It's ugly and unromantic," Cartwright tells WebMD. "So compliance drops down to 50% after one year."
That's where spousal support becomes important. Cartwright says, "Getting the spouse to hang in there and stay in bed with the partner so he keeps wearing it is key." In a pilot study that explored the effects of bed sharing on adherence to CPAP treatment, Cartwright found that men prescribed CPAP therapy were far more likely to maintain it when their wives stayed in bed with them. Study results were published in a 2008 issue of The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
Most severe cases of sleep apnea require spousal support outside the bedroom, too. Weight loss, a huge component to eliminating sleep apnea, comes much easier when your spouse plays an active role. "You have to cook differently, take a walk with him," Cartwright suggests.
Even a 20-pound weight loss can mean a big difference. This slight weight reduction can change full-blown sleep apnea to positional apnea, whereby the problem exists only when the person sleeps on his or her back. "You have less respiratory distress on your side," Cartwright says. "Your mouth automatically opens." To train back sleepers to switch to their sides, Cartwright gives patients T-shirts with a pocket in the back that holds three tennis balls. If they attempt to roll over, they're quickly reminded not to.
"The whole procedure may take a year or two," Cartwright tells WebMD. "If they can get into better physical shape, patients don't need to wear anything."