There are things in life that really, really suck, like finding out you have terminal cancer. Then there is stuff that really sucks, like losing your job. There is also ordinary stuff that sucks, like missing a connecting flight. Then there is stuff that you wish you could say sucks but you might get a reputation for being whiny for saying it sucks. For those of you who suffer from sleep apnea and are having treated it the typical way (by trying to sleep with a mask over your nose and/or mouth while mechanically pumped air zooms down your windpipe), you will relate to my opinion that the experience really sucks.
Most sucky experiences though are transitory. Using a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) or BPAP (bi-way positive airway pressure) machine while sleeping is the way those of us with sleep apnea should sleep for the rest of our lives. The result of not using it could be, not to mince words, deadly. When you have sleep apnea, your lungs decide to shut down while you sleep, causing carbon dioxide buildup and increased blood pressure. This can cause various heart ailments including heart attacks, blocked arteries, strokes and maybe waking up dead.
So it is truly remarkable that given the potentially deadly consequences, so many patients prescribed a CPAP or BPAP simply stop using it. They’ll take their chances with sleep apnea and sudden death, thank you very much. Because when you have to do something annoying for eight hours when you crave uninterrupted sleep, your CPAP or BPAP (a branded version of a BPAP is a BiPAP) is going to feel more like an enemy than your friend.
Is there no pill I can take? Alas, none is available, and it appears there never will be one either. No pill and your remaining choices are chancy at best. If you are very overweight or obese, sometimes losing the weight will cause the sleep apnea to go away. Or not. In my case, I am not a whole lot overweight, so the sleep doctor doubts it will do much good. Even so I may give it a try. Trying to sleep with my BPAP is so annoying it may be worth taking off that weight and more and hope for the best. Then maybe I can fully sleep again.
There is also a dental appliance you can try. My brother, who also suffers from sleep apnea, tried it to bad effect. He may need orthoscopic surgery to correct his jaw alignment. You can also have your uvula, tonsils, adenoids and some throat tissue removed. Even with all that radical surgery, it only cures sleep apnea about a third of the time. And it is quite expensive, painful and could have side effects.
Of course, the reason you use a CPAP or BPAP is to get sleep you are not getting, the vital REM (rapid eye movement) sleep that makes dreaming so vivid. In my case two sleep studies confirmed I got no REM sleep at all. Presumably I am at least getting some of it now. However, my BPAP is hardly conducive to sleeping. Let me count just some of the ways:
- Your mask probably won’t seal very well. Cleaning the mask nightly helps by removing oils from your skin that accumulate on the mask’s seal. To really get a good seal you have to lock the mask down. This means pulling the mask’s head straps quite tight and locking down the screw that connects the mask with your forehead. This in turn means indentations on your forehead in the morning and maybe a headache. You do this to avoid the whistling noise that results when the extra pressure from your machine finds a way to escape. In any event you, try a little of this, a little of that and at least in my case it never seals perfectly. In my case, with every breath some cold air hisses out near the bridge of my nose and that keeps me awake.
- Even if you think your mask is sealed, it will start whistling in the night. This is because the machines are usually programmed to start off at a low level, hoping you fall asleep before it really cranks up the air pressure. It needs to do this to keep the windpipe open. This whistling will usually wake you up. You will probably reach for the button on the machine that turns the air pressure down a bit, but it will be back at full pressure in an hour or so.
- If your nose is disjoint because it was broken, like mine, then the top of the mask won’t seal well. Worse, it irritates the bridge of the nose. When I complained I was sent a jelly-like piece of plastic that is draped over the bridge of the nose. It definitely helps but is hard to get on correctly, because you have to tip your head up while you try to don the mask, so the plastic won’t fall off.
- When you sleep, you expect your body to relax. It should be natural for your breathing to slow down. Not with your machine on. Your lungs expand and contract, sometimes like you are in a brisk walk. That does not stimulate sleepy feelings.
- The mask feels claustrophobic. Particularly if you sleep with your mouth open, you will breathe out warm air from your body into the mask and thus on your face. Had I grown up in a tropical climate, maybe this would feel okay, but it feels weird instead.
- With the BPAP machine that I use, the cycle varies. As you exhale the pressure drops. The machine doesn’t necessarily get the cycle right. So you either feel like you are breathing too much or, worse, that you are not breathing enough. Particularly if you rise to go to the bathroom, then reconnect the mask to the machine, and the machine restarts at a low level, you may feel like you are not getting enough oxygen, and it’s hard to suppress the shortness of breath feeling. Which means, you stay awake and feel a bit panicky.
- You both hear and feel your breathing. The mask amplifies your breath. The mask itself expands and contracts a bit while I breath, making a crinkling noise and potentially unsealing the mask. This also means that if you do get to sleep you might sleep through your alarm because you won’t hear it. Instead, you will be listening to yourself breathe.
- Since you are tethered to the machine with a hose, the hose is a constant distraction while you shift in bed. So you spend a fair amount of your rest time pushing the damn hose out of the way.
I hope I can get used to it. I’ve talked with other sleep apnea sufferers who say they have, but I imagine it takes years, if it happens at all. After thirty days of use my sleep doctor will look at the metrics collected by the machine and adjust my settings. I sure hope she will drop the pressure a notch or two. It seems excessive at 3 AM.
Using a CPAP or BPAP is really like spending every night in an iron lung. It may be that an iron lung is really what we sleep apnea sufferers need to get a decent sleep, providing we can fit a bed inside one. An iron lung however is likely prohibitively expensive, and it’s doubtful your spouse wants you sleeping in one. So it’s a CPAP or BPAP instead.
So forgive me for venting. Whining is good for my system. And while I realize I am just whining, it really sucks.