Danville Express

Living - August 24, 2007

Forever tired

Effects of sleep disorder range from fatigue to heart failure

by Natalie O'Neill

Tom Gallinatti woke up gasping for air.

The 48-year-old fire chief was dreaming he was underwater - kicking violently to the surface for a breath. But the harder he paddled, the deeper he sank.

"My heart rate was racing - I was suffocating," he remembers.

Thinking back, the Danville man says the dream was one of the first signs that he had developed sleep apnea, a disorder that affects one in five American adults. It occurs when breathing stops in intervals during sleep, as a result of a collapsed airway in the throat.

In his case, the drowning dream was his body's way of telling him something was wrong.

"It made me realize how many people die in their sleep. I could have easily had a heart attack," he said.

Like Gallinatti, most sufferers of sleep apnea don't know they have it. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 90 percent of all cases remain undiagnosed.

Since the struggle for air occurs in a subconscious state, many people with the condition just know they feel tired all the time - and can't figure out why.

Because the brain, lungs and heart are not getting enough air, the body is kept in a state of alert, making a deep, satisfying sleep unattainable.

In Gallinatti's case, he was waking up every two minutes, not to the point he could sense it but to the degree that he was unable to rest effectively.

"My body was kick-starting itself to breathe and I didn't know it," he explained.

Eight months ago, before he was diagnosed, he had no idea why he was so tired all the time. The second he would sit down, he'd pass out. He would drift off watching a movie with his wife, chatting with his sons - even driving in the car.

"I'd wake up literally one lane over in traffic," he cringes to remember.

On a typical weekday, he'd begin his morning with exercise that would keep him going through the workday, but right after his job slowed, his body would force sleep upon him.

"I felt like I was hung over every morning, even after six or seven hours of sleep. I just accepted that's how life was," he said.

Then his brother, who had been recently diagnosed with sleep apnea, suggested he take an online test to see if he had symptoms. Gallinatti had heard of the disorder, but associated it with overweight and elderly people, not active middle-aged men.

In reality, each year about 4 percent of men and 2 percent of women over the age of 35 are diagnosed with sleep apnea, according to the National Institutes of Health. Of these, many are in otherwise good health.

Along with fatigue, moderate effects include irritability, sexual dysfunction, learning and memory difficulties. More serious consequences include congestive heart failure, stroke, irregular heart rhythms, cardiovascular disease and fatal car accidents.

After some encouragement from his brother, Gallinatti took a quiz online and tested very high. He then spent the night at a "bed and breakfast" for sleep apnea testing, where sleep specialists kept track of how many times pauses in his breathing occurred in the night.

During the testing, doctors determined he needed to begin treatment while sleeping, using continuous positive airflow pressure in the form of a face mask. The mask helps air get to his lungs during sleep by applying air pressure to his nasal airway.

Since beginning the treatment, he has noticed his energy level increase dramatically.

"My productivity level has gotten so much better," he says, and he's no longer dosing off in traffic.

Loud snoring, being 20 to 30 pounds overweight, having high blood pressure, a short, thick neck, or a family history of sleep apnea makes a person more susceptible. Some studies show those who have stressful, irregular work hours are more prone to the condition.

Sufferers are also three times more likely to get into car accidents, according to a study conducted by the UC San Diego school of medicine. In fact, 980 car accident fatalities every year could be prevented, the study says.

Contrary to popular belief, the machine used for treatment is not too loud, Gallinatti said, especially compared to the snoring that accompanies untreated sleep apnea. The machine starts off slowly and picks up in the middle of sleep.

"My wife says it's a lot quieter than my snoring," he said.

And the treatment doesn't obstruct sleeping with a partner.

"You can still hold and embrace each other, it doesn't get in the way of intimacy," he explained.

Now, Gallinatti says he's noticed little things about his life are getting better. He gets more awake time with his family, for one.

"The other day, I sat down and watched an entire movie with my son without falling asleep. I haven't done that in years," he says.

Do you have sleep apnea?

To learn more about sleep apnea or to take a sleep apnea assessment test online, visit sleepapneainfo.com.

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