It might be robbing you of more than just a good night’s sleep.
Connie Nickles, an accounts receivable clerk for Bob McCosh Chevrolet GMC Cadillac, was told for 20 years that she stopped breathing while she slept. Her family was uneasy watching her gasp for air wondering if she would start breathing again. Connie also struggled with snoring and intense daytime tiredness, but it took a feeling of terror for her to finally get help.
“One night I went to sleep with a lot of congestion from allergies,” she shares. “I stopped breathing and was so congested that I couldn’t get started again. I woke up struggling to get any air moving, and I really thought I would die. I knew I had to do something.”
After seeing a doctor and participating in a sleep study, Connie was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea.
Sleep Apnea Defined and Diagnosed
According to the Mayo Clinic, sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during the night. There are two main forms: obstructive and central. Obstructive is the most common and occurs when the throat muscles relax.
Apnea is Greek for “want of breath,” and the disorder was first described in 1965. According to the National Sleep Foundation, as many as 18 million Americans struggle with sleep apnea and most go undiagnosed.
Kelly Bietsch, respiratory therapist and co-founder of Kilgore’s Respiratory Center, was offering free sleep apnea screenings to the community when she realized both she and her husband suffered from the disorder.
“Getting treated changed my life,” Kelly says. She discovered that she stopped breathing up to 22 times per hour.
Some people actually quit breathing up to or even more than 100 times per hour, Kelly notes. “Sleep apnea breaks the sleep cycle interrupting the chunks of deep, REM sleep that we need each night,” she says. “We also experience a decrease in oxygen that can damage the cells in our body.”
Sleep apnea is a chronic blocking of the airway that can be linked to serious health issues such as hypertension, diabetes, stroke, heart issues and depression. Other symptoms of the disorder include daytime fatigue, night sweats, headaches, weight gain and frequent nighttime urination.
While sleep apnea can affect anyone at any age, studies have shown a correlation with gender, race, age, family history, neck and waist size and body mass index. The disorder also occurs more often in people who experience nasal congestion and those who use alcohol, tobacco, tranquilizers and sedatives.
Traditional Treatment Options
Once diagnosed, Connie wrestled with the treatment options. Deciding that surgery felt too extreme, she opted for a CPAP machine and purchased her first device in 2007. She has worn it faithfully, remembering the fear she first experienced when she needs motivation.
“CPAP machines are the recommended therapy option for treating obstructive sleep apnea and there are no negative side effects,” Kelly shares. With a passion for education, Kelly patiently explains that CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, and she demonstrates how the device keeps the airway open while the patient sleeps.
Kelly has owned Kilgore’s Respiratory Center since 2003 when she moved from St. Louis at the urging of her brother, Bob Kilgore. She opened her first store in the back of his Chapel Hill Pharmacy.
Kilgore’s Respiratory, which is now located in the Fairview Market Place on West Broadway, still offers free screenings. Kelly shares that about 95 percent of those screened have a positive test warranting them to be looked at by a doctor.
From there, patients usually do a sleep study at home or in a local sleep center. If the study reveals sleep apnea, patients are then given treatment options, which can include lifestyle changes, surgery, a CPAP machine or dental appliance.
Kilgore’s Respiratory is an equipment supplier, and Kelly prides herself on education, patient care and offering the most up-to-date equipment to rent or buy. While the national average of those following through with using their CPAP machines falls at 40- to 45 percent, Kilgore’s average sits at 82 percent. Kelly is committed to the success of her patients by offering education, checkups and support that are not covered by health insurance.
Kelly says the pressure on a CPAP machine ranges from four to 20, and the machines contain smart cards that should be read once a year. Respiratory therapists can check the data and tell if the equipment is working right or if the pressure needs to be adjusted.
Two years after receiving her machine, Connie noticed the air was actually blowing her mouth open while she slept. The weird whooshing sound felt odd, so she had it checked out. Sure enough, Connie had lost weight, and her body was now working more efficiently. Her respiratory therapist was able to drop her pressure from 12 to eight, which was a big improvement, she says.
Alternative Treatment Options
Another treatment option is Oral Appliance Therapy. According to Stacey Weis, a dental assistant with the Koala Center for Sleep Disorders in Columbia, oral appliances are gaining momentum and were approved in 2006 as the first line of treatment for those suffering from mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea.
Dr. Richard Bohon, D.D.S., has practiced dentistry in Columbia since 1978 and opened the Koala Center for Sleep Disorders at 1505 Chapel Hill Road in September of 2014. He became interested in sleep apnea when he was personally diagnosed and received training on treating snoring, sleep apnea and Temporomandibular disorders (TMD) with oral appliance therapy.
“We’re trying to get the word out that there is an alternative to the CPAP form of treatment,” Stacey shares. She describes the appliance as comfortable, easy to wear, small and easy to carry.
The oral appliance fits on the upper and lower teeth and resembles a retainer. It is FDA approved, custom-fabricated and worn at night. The appliance repositions the lower jaw, soft palate and tongue to keep the airway open and prevent apneas.
Dr. Bohon and his staff want to encourage people to get tested for sleep apnea and try alternative treatment options, especially if they’ve given up on their CPAP machine. “Insurance and Medicare are covering the appliance,” Stacey remarks, “And most people are surprised to know it’s covered through their medical insurance, not dental.”
A Worthy Pursuit
Connie agrees with Kelly, who claims being treated for sleep apnea has changed her life.
“My quality and quantity of sleep has greatly improved,” Connie says. “I can actually fall asleep and stay asleep rather than wake up repeatedly.” She also claims that her allergies have improved, and she’s better able to breathe through her nose.
Connie still vividly remembers that fearful night but remains grateful that her experience has led to a fuller and healthier life.
“Without sleep, my body wasn’t working at peak performance,” she explains. “I was too tired to work out or do what I wanted or needed to do. I was like a car without fuel.”
Now, eight years later, Connie is happy to be running on a full tank.