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Sleep Apnea Can Damage the Heart, But Diagnosis and Treatment Are Available at St. Clair Hospital's Sleep Disorders Center
By Nancy Kennedy

It has long been recognized that untreated sleep apnea leads to a host of medical problems that can significantly compromise one's health, quality of life and longevity. Now, there is new evidence indicating that a strong link exists between this common sleep disorder and the development of cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure and congestive heart failure.

Karen Gannon, RRT, RPSGT, manager of the Sleep Disorders Center and Department of Respiratory Therapy at St. Clair Hospital, explains that sleep apnea increases one's risk for developing congestive heart failure (CHF) because episodes of apnea are associated with low oxygen levels in the blood. This makes the heart pump harder to try to compensate, stressing the heart and eventually causing the heart muscle to weaken and become enlarged. A weakened heart muscle is no longer able to pump effectively – which is essentially what CHF means. Treatment for sleep apnea improves oxygenation, decreasing the stress on the heart at night and helping it to pump more effectively.

"Sleep apnea damages the heart. It is not a minor problem; it's a serious health issue that can have major long term consequences. Treatment for sleep apnea can help prevent the development of CHF and it can improve CHF in those patients who already have it. It improves the cardiac ejection fraction, an indicator of how effectively the heart is pumping," Gannon says. "Treatment improves overall quality of life."

As a respiratory therapist with 33 years of experience, and a registered polytechsomnographic technologist – a person who is specially trained to perform diagnostic sleep studies - Gannon is one of the region's experts on sleep apnea and other sleep disorders. She is a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and was trained in sleep studies at Stanford University; she is credentialed by the Board of Registered Polysomnographic Technology. She says that one cannot underestimate the connection between good sleep and good health: if you sleep better, you feel better and function better, and most people need 7 to 8 hours of good sleep. But if you are waking up at night and you don't breathe well in your sleep, you are not simply going to be tired, you are going to put your health at risk. People who lack good sleep are deprived of the physiological restoration that is sleep's purpose, Gannon explains. Waking up frequently creates stress that can lead to fatigue, weight gain, hypertension and even diabetes.

"We need both quality and quantity when it comes to sleep. Unfortunately, lack of sleep is common. When people are very busy, the first thing they will sacrifice is sleep. But sleep restores you and gives you the energy to maintain your busy life, without feeling terrible all the time." St. Clair's Sleep Disorders Center opened in 1993. Demand for sleep studies has grown so much that the Center is now operating seven days a week and never has an empty bed. To Gannon, this is a positive development: "Physicians are more aware and educated about sleep disorders than ever before. As they recognize the dangers of sleep apnea and other disorders, they are referring more and more patients for sleep studies." A polysomnogram is the gold standard for diagnosing sleep disorders. This test has the capability of detecting many different aspects of sleep: breathing patterns, oxygenation, brain wave patterns, limb movement and heart rate and rhythm. It can even detect bruxism, which is grinding the teeth during sleep. Although most of the patients who come to the Sleep Disorders Center have symptoms of sleep apnea, there are other conditions that interfere with sleep. These include insomnia, narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome and periodic limb movement disorders.

The overnight sleep study experience is generally pleasant and involves no pain or sedation. The Sleep Disorders Center provides private rooms with comfortable beds and a television, designed to replicate the patient's normal bedtime experience. Once the patient is ready for bed, the technologist attaches various sensors with which to monitor physiologic activity during sleep. Once the study is completed, it is interpreted by a physician who is a sleep specialist and the results are transmitted to the patient's primary care physician.

The usual treatment for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. This is a system worn during sleep that consists of a small, carefully fitted face mask, tubing and a compressor that sends humidified air and sometimes oxygen to the airway, keeping it open. Most people find that they feel better so quickly that getting accustomed to the appliance is easy.

"Sleep is essential to your overall health and well being," Gannon states. "If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea, discuss it with your doctor. Although sleep studies are sometimes done in outpatient settings and there is even a home sleep study program being developed, for quality results, it should be done in a hospital."

For more information or to speak with Karen Gannon, call (412) 942-2035 or visit the St. Clair Hospital website at www.stclair.org.

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