My mother was growing more and more fatigued. She wasn’t up to doing the things she normally would have. She started waking up tired, feeling like she hadn’t gotten any rest at night. She found herself nodding off in the afternoon more and more often. She chalked it up to age. After a while, her legs started swelling, so she went to the doctor and was prescribed water pills. Then she started getting pain, headaches in particular, and as a result she couldn’t concentrate to read, her favorite pastime. The doctor kept telling her he couldn’t find anything wrong, so as a result she started to wonder if her problem was one of the newest conditions we were hearing about, like fibromyalsia or chronic fatigue syndrome. She grew depressed as her symptoms worsened.
Then one day when she was at the doctor’s yet again, hoping to get a diagnosis and treatment that could help her, the nurse came in the room where Mom had been waiting and said, “Are we boring you?” The comment didn’t make any sense to Mom, so she asked the nurse what she meant. The nurse told her they had heard her snoring in the next room. She had fallen asleep this time without even knowing it. The nurse (thank heavens) finally suggested my mother go to a sleep clinic, and there she was diagnosed as having apnea and finally received treatment.
Apnea is when the airway closes off as you sleep. As you take in less oxygen, carbon dioxide levels in your body build up, making your heart work harder. This can result in cardiac problems.
Apnea can cause all the symptoms my mother was experiencing: fatigue, headache, feeling unrested after sleep, swelling in the legs, and difficulty concentrating. She has always been a snorer, which is another possible sign of apnea, along with night sweats, restless sleep, and episodes of not breathing during sleep.
By the time my mother’s apnea was discovered, her blood oxygen level was only 30%. Consequently, she was immediately put on the most common treatment, a CPAP machine (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure). The machine forces the airway to stay open, resulting in a flow of oxygen all night long.
The machine is very noisy, so it took a while to get used to, both for her and my dad. Wearing a mask over the mouth and nose is also something new for her. She said she had difficulty falling asleep during the first couple weeks because she felt like she was being smothered by the mask, even though she knew it was just psychological. Obviously, she needs to use it every night, so they have to haul it with them when they travel. And it was quite expensive. Insurance helped pay for it, but the machines cost about $1200 on average.
The day after she got the machine, Mom acted like the treatment was working. She said she didn’t remember the last time she had such a good night’s sleep. As a result, she found energy she had forgotten she had. Although she wasn’t bouncing off the walls, she was back to what she had been several years previously.
She says what she realized most was how much of her life she had been missing. Dad would talk to her about trips they had taken and things they had done, and she remembered them hazily or not at all. He told her she slept through most of the drives, and she didn’t usually remember falling asleep.
The treatment also has its positive aspects. Although the machine is loud, she says it has eliminated her snoring, and she thinks that’s a good trade-off (Dad agrees). And the machine is portable, so they are able to take it with them when they go.
Mom is obviously glad she listened to the nurse and went to the sleep clinic. The results of treatment have been effective. Even if the apnea hadn’t killed her outright, it was making her life pretty miserable. She finds any inconvenience of the machine and the supplies she has to buy for it well worth the cost and trouble, and the rest of the family agrees.
And, by the way, she has a new doctor.
American Sleep Apnea Association. Sleepapnea.org.