Sleep apnea can cause serious health problems |

Sleep apnea can cause serious health problems

Linda Hiller

If you can’t sleep, perfect health may elude you. This is something patients of sleep disorder specialist, Dr. John Zimmerman, have learned through literally exhausting experiences.

Zimmerman has held “awake group” clinics in the area for people who might suspect they have sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that has only been studied since 1965.

The problem with sleep apnea, Zimmerman said, is that it can contribute to many other health problems, including high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, heart attack and stroke.

Gardnerville Ranchos resident, Lee Scheffel, 66, went to see Zimmerman after experiencing a variety of disturbing symptoms following his retirement from Pacific Telephone four years ago.

“I got into a low state and was what I would consider almost depressed – I just didn’t feel like doing anything,” he said. “My wife said I was holding my breath at night, so I went to my regular doctor, and he sent me to Dr. Zimmerman.”

It turned out Scheffel had many of the symptoms of sleep apnea – high blood pressure, loud snoring, problems with short-term memory and being tired much of the time.

After going through a physical examination and sleep test, Zimmerman prescribed for Scheffel the most popular effective treatment of sleep apnea, the CPAP machine, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure.

“The CPAP actually “turbo-charges the breathing,” Zimmer- man said.

The machine blows air into the patient’s nose, keeping air flowing and the breathing passageway clear. Results are often immediate, as patients experience the first good night’s sleep they’ve had in what may be as long as a lifetime.

Scheffel, only on the CPAP machine for a few weeks, said while he has felt better, the machine has been hard to get used to.

“Right now my wife, Eugenia, is sleeping in another room,” he said, explaining that it is only temporary because of a loud pump which adds oxygen to his air flow. Eventually, he said, the pump will no longer be necessary.

Still, because of his increasing energy and happier state of mind, in addition to his dropping blood pressure, both Scheffel and his wife can see the benefits to treating the sleep apnea.

“My wife said, ‘Why didn’t you do this 40 years ago?'” he said.

Sleep apnea is characterized by brief interruptions of breathing during sleep.

There are two types of sleep apnea: central and obstructive. Central sleep apnea – the rarer form – occurs when the brain fails to send the appropriate messages to the breathing muscles to tell it to breathe.

Obstructive sleep apnea is much more common and occurs when air cannot flow out of the patient’s nose or mouth, although efforts to breathe continue.

Breathing pauses, or “apneic episodes” – as much as 30 per night in apnea patients – are almost always accompanied by snoring, although not everyone who snores has sleep apnea.

There are also choking sensations in apnea patients, Zimmerman said. This constantly-interrupted, and anything but restful, sleep often leads to morning headaches and daytime sleepiness. It is also associated with irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

It is estimated that as many as 18 million Americans have sleep apnea. It is more common in men and also as people age: 4 percent of middle-aged men and 2 percent of middle-aged women have sleep apnea.

While the exact cause of sleep apnea hasn’t been determined, it does seem to run in some families, suggesting a genetic connection. People who snore loudly, are overweight and have some abnormality in their nose, throat or other part of the upper airway are also more at risk.

In many cases, it is the spouses who alert their sleepmates to their disturbing slumber habits.

“I’m sure we have saved marriages as well as lives,” Zimmerman said. “Instead of gasping, snoring and choking, people sleep through the night and wake up fully rested.”

Zimmerman, 48, has been interested in the sleep process since he was in a student George Washington High School in Denver, Colo.

“We had a term paper assignment my senior year by – I can still remember her name – Mrs. Dawson, and I chose to write about sleep,” he said. “I got an A+ and a career out of that term paper.”

Zimmerman eventually got his doctorate degree in biological psychology from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and has been involved in sleep disorder study since 1981.

Another of Zimmerman’s successful patients never thought he’d live past 50.

Washoe Valley resident, Ron Morelli, 52, who is a dealer at the Atlantis Casino, said his father died of a heart attack at the age of 47.

“He had high blood pressure and probably had sleep apnea,” he said. “With my father’s history, I was afraid I wouldn’t make 50 myself.”

Morelli said he was getting drowsy while driving in the afternoon or watching a movie in the dark, and his sleepmate alerted him to his tendencies to stop breathing at night, so he sought medical help.

After surgery to adjust throat membranes and remove his uvula, he has been using the CPAP for three years, and has only good things to say about it.

“I was amazed at how much better I felt after using the machine,” he said. “It has kept me alive. The improvement in my alertness is literally like night and day.”

In retrospect, Morelli said he wishes his dad knew then what he knows now, adding,

“When I think back on how my dad was, he was constantly tired.”

Zimmerman will be hosting another awake group clinic Wednesday, Dec. 3, 7 p.m., at the Mountain Medical Sleep Disorder Center, 710 W. Washington St. in Carson City.

Anyone interested in finding out more about sleep apnea is welcome to attend the free support group meeting. Patients who are currently using CPAP are also encouraged to attend. For more information, call 882-2109.