Understanding the symptoms of a sleep disorder

August 10, 2010 · No Comments

There are a lot of misconceptions in the general public about the role of a sleep clinic, why patients come to seek help from a Sleep Medicine specialist, or why patients need to sleep in a sleep laboratory for an evaluation. From my own experience, when someone hears that I am a "sleep doctor," they often assume that I see mainly patients with insomnia. They are generally surprised to learn that the vast majority of my patients don't have insomnia, but instead have difficulty staying awake and can nod off too easily when inactive, such as while reading, or in boring meetings, or while driving. Indeed, most of my patients boast that they can "sleep anywhere, anytime." I often have patients say something to the effect of "Doc, I don't know why my primary care physician sent me here, because I don’t have a problem with sleep, I just can't stay awake."

These misconceptions are also perpetuated by the mainstream media or by some writers who even have a specific interest in sleep. As an example, I recently heard an interview on National Public Radio (NPR) with Patricia Morrisroe, an insomniac herself who just published a new book Wide Awake: A memoir of Insomnia. In the interview, she mentions that she had an overnight sleep study in the sleep lab and that the technician mentioned that if one of the wires used to record sleep comes off in the middle of the night, that he would quietly come in the room to fix it and, hopefully, she would not wake up. Patricia Morrisroe then goes on to say: "If I were the type of person who didn't wake up when a strange man came into my room to remove electrodes, I would not be here..."

What she failed to recognize is that the difficulty to arouse out of sleep and grogginess upon awakening are precisely the symptoms we typically find in patients who need to be evaluated with an overnight sleep study. Disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea lead to excessive sleepiness and the remarkable ability to "sleep anywhere, anytime." In fact, it is common for these patients NOT to awaken when the technician goes into the bedroom to fix an electrode in the middle of the night. Many other sleep disorders cause daytime sleepiness or fatigue, including narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome, and periodic limb movement disorder, to name a few. Indeed, insomnia can often be a symptom caused by one of these other sleep disorders since the disruptive limb movements or breathing stoppages fragment sleep and rob the patient of their "good sleep."

Excessive sleepiness or fatigue is one of the most common symptoms shared by many of the sleep disorders. If you experience excessive sleepiness in spite of maximizing your total sleep time at night, you may have a sleep disorder. Your suspicion for a sleep disorder should be especially raised if you can't wake up even when a "strange man" comes into your room at night...

Take this sleep quiz to see if you may have a sleep disorder.

  1. Do you snore?
  2. Are you sleepy during the day?
  3. Do you wake with a dry throat or headache?
  4. Do you wake with heartburn or an acid taste in your mouth?
  5. Do you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep?
  6. Are you irritable or do you have difficulty concentrating?
  7. Do you have high blood pressure or other heart problems?

If you answered "yes" to 2 or more of these questions, you could have a sleep disorder. Consult a sleep medicine specialist certified by the American Board of Sleep Medicine for proper diagnosis and treatment. Yes, you may have to undergo a sleep study, but remember most chances are, you won't hear the sleep technician entering your room. Treat your sleep problem. Your health is at stake.

Tags: patients

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