Kram says sleep apnea can be identified by the following symptoms:
- Frequent daytime sleeping
- Choking or gasping when waking up
- Sore throats
- Frequent dreams about drowning or choking
Unfortunately, sufferers often ignore symptoms until a partner decides to move out of the bedroom.
"A lot of the men at the [UCSF Sleep] Center are depressed because they are not only disconnected from their spouse, but their kids as well, because they are often too tired to participate in family activities," says Kimberley Trotter, Chief Polysomnographic Technologist at the Center.
Sleep centers recommend that prospective patients see a primary care physician first to assess and discuss treatment for possible side effects (such as high blood pressure) and to determine if a sleep specialist is needed. The specialist, if called for, observes the patient during sleep.
With a diagnosis of sleep apnea, there are a number of treatment options, both surgical and noninvasive.
Surgical treatment focuses on removing the excess tissue causing the obstruction, and it usually involves either cutting away tissue with a scalpel or using a laser to cauterize and shrink tissues. An approach that has come into favor in the last year is called somnoplasty. In this procedure, a needle inserted into the back of the tongue microwaves the flesh, shrinking it as it heals into scar tissue.
The most popular and effective noninvasive treatment is the CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device, which gently sends a continuous stream of air pressure into the throat through a mask worn by the patient. But it doesn't work for everyone. "I tried using the CPAP in November, but the mask made me feel claustrophobic," Altenberg said.
Another option is a mendibular splint, a dental appliance to prevent the jaw and tongue from sliding back during sleep. It may be sufficient treatment for milder cases, according to Kram.
He adds that those who seek nonsurgical treatments should keep in mind that they'll have to use these devices indefinitely. In Altenberg's case, he has decided to have surgery with the hope that this decade might be a little more restful than the last. He's keeping his fingers crossed.