Jan. 15, 2001 -- Stephen Oliphant hit the record button on the tape recorder just before he fell asleep. He was determined to prove to his wife that his snoring wasn't that bad.
But when he woke up the next morning and hit the play button, he was astonished. "It sounded like a wounded animal," he says. Oliphant resolved to see a doctor about his snoring.
So last fall, Oliphant, a 39-year-old bank vice president, visited the Center for Sleep Medicine in Lafayette Hill, Pa. He put on his pajamas and let a technician hook up about 20 electrodes and sensors to his head, face, and body, to measure brain waves, respiration, ECG, oxygen levels in the blood, and eye and leg movements.
Days later, June M. Fry, MD, looked over his charts and told him he had obstructive sleep apnea, a condition caused by a blockage of the breathing passages. No wonder Oliphant felt tired during the day. The tests showed Oliphant's sleep was interrupted an average of 22 times an hour because he wasn't getting enough oxygen.
Fry fitted Oliphant with a nasal CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) device, a breathing machine that looks like a scuba diving mask attached to a small canister vacuum cleaner. "It takes a little getting used to," says Oliphant, who uses it every night. But "I couldn't be happier, and neither could my wife." Oliphant is now sleeping through the night. "I just have so much more energy," he says.
He's one of thousands of men -- and women -- across the country who are turning to doctors to end their snoring. Many are sent by their spouses. Fry estimates that 80% of her patients are being treated for obstructive sleep apnea, which she says affects more than two million Americans. People with the condition often wake up snorting, gasping, or choking. While the CPAP device is the most common treatment, others include laser procedures, oxygen therapy, and dental devices.
In a study published in the October 1999 issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers measured the effect of CPAP devices on 10 men with snoring and sleep apnea, and also the effect of any improvement on their spouses. Indeed, the devices were effective at eliminating the husbands' snoring and sleep apnea, and this resulted in their spouses getting a better night's sleep, even if they previously had been habitually exposed to the distractions.
Snoring is caused by the vibration of excess floppy tissue in the nose and back of the throat, Fry says. The condition results in a decrease of oxygen in the bloodstream, which puts additional stress on the heart, blood vessels, and brain.
Often, it's wives who send their husbands to the doctor after they notice their husbands have stopped breathing. "That's very alarming to a bed partner," Fry says. The CPAP device generally solves the breathing problems by blowing a regular stream of air through the nose and throat, forcing any floppy tissues to stay open. The result: normal breathing and a snore-free night.
Wayne Crawford's snoring was so bad, it was keeping both him and his wife awake at night. Crawford, 43, is a computer systems programmer for the city of Philadelphia. He ran track and played football back in high school, and was a member of a championship rough-touch football team in his 20s. But then came middle age. Crawford was gaining weight and feeling so tired, he couldn't even ride his bike any more.
He found the CPAP device "a little claustrophobic at first. It looks like elephantiasis," he says. When he wears it, his kids tell him, "Daddy, you've got your trunk on."
But Crawford's wife doesn't mind the humming sound the machine makes. "It's somewhat soothing as opposed to the sound of my snoring," Crawford says.
Thanks to regular sleep, Crawford is no longer in what he describes as "a constant state of lethargy." He's also working out regularly at a gym.
Fry began studying sleep disorders when she was a resident at the Neurological Institute of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in the late 1970s. Since 1981, Fry has been the director of the Center for Sleep Medicine (formerly the Sleep Disorder Center) at the Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Among the other sleep disorders Fry treats is narcolepsy, a neurological disorder that can cause people to fall asleep without warning at embarrassing or even dangerous moments. Sherry Johnson is a narcoleptic who used to fall asleep while she was cashing checks as a bank teller. "I would just sort of nod off and not even know I was doing it," says Johnson, 57, of Cherry Hill, N.J. She'd come to a few seconds later without knowing whether she had handed any cash back to the customer. "It was a creepy thing for me," she says.
Johnson also fell asleep while driving. She'd change lanes and her head would droop. She'd wake up seconds later not knowing what had happened. "I thank God my guardian angel was on my shoulder," she says.
Johnson didn't know she had narcolepsy until she saw Fry in the early 1990s. With medication and regular sleep, she's "almost 98% symptom-free."
Fry also treats patients with a neurological disorder called restless leg syndrome, which can cause twitching and various sensations, primarily in the legs, making it difficult to fall or stay asleep.
Anne Belcher, 67, a retired chemist from Wayne, Pa., says she used to spend much of her nights pacing the floor. She'd get a sensation in her legs described by Fry as a "creeping, crawling" feeling. Only walking could relieve it. "You get very antsy," says Belcher, who has been seeing Fry since October.
Belcher has been taking special medications to make the symptoms go away. Now, "as far as the legs go, I could sleep forever," she says. "The last couple of months, I haven't felt the sensation."
Ralph Cipriano is a Philadelphia freelance writer. He is a former staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.