Sleep Lab: An Inside Look

One woman’s exhausted journey into the world of sleep science.

From the WebMD Archives


Sleep at Last

What follows is 7 hours of restless, delirious sleep. My confused, exhausted mind conjures up dreams that I’m actually lying awake the whole time. I am vaguely aware of opening my eyes and apologizing to the technician, and each time she assures me that I have, in fact, been asleep.

At one point I roll over and detach several leads, and three times during the night I kick my way out of the leg monitors. Around 5:30 a.m. I finally fall into a deep, restful sleep where the jumbled worries about lab results can no longer plague me; 15 minutes later, the technician wakes me up and tells me we’re done.

I spend the better part of the next day trying to scrub adhesive jelly out of my hair. The unctuous goop is impervious to soap and every time I think I’m clean I find another deposit behind my ear. It takes all of the hot water, most of my shampoo, and a few healthy rounds of vehement unladylike cursing to wash it all away.

So imagine my dismay when my doctor positively diagnoses me with sleep apnea and recommends that I return to the lab for a second night to try a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device. That's a face or nasal mask that pumps a flow of air into the nasal passages to keep the airway open.

His argument for treatment is simple: I had stopped breathing. In fact, during REM sleep alone I stopped breathing 54 times.

I’m shocked. I recall the number of times I woke up to tell the technician that I couldn’t sleep, or to apologize for not snoring. Every time I awoke I inhaled clearly through an unobstructed airway and was convinced the sleep lab was capturing nothing worthwhile. The doctor then tells me that my blood oxygen level dropped below 85% without my awareness.

This is the danger of sleep apnea. We are asleep when it happens, and as soon as we wake up it goes away. We rarely catch ourselves in the act, and that enables the condition to silently erode our health. Our blood pressure rises, our risk of stroke increases, and our hearts labor, all while we’re sleeping peacefully. Or so we think.

This is the moment when I realize that I have to let go of my snoring denial. I agree to go back for the second night at the lab. I will sit quietly while the technician gobs sticky mounds of adhesive onto my scalp and I will wear a CPAP mask. And hopefully, once the experience is behind me, I can look forward to better rest, less daytime sleepiness, more energy, and a better outlook for my greater health. Right after I scrub the goop out of my hair.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on February 23, 2011
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