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Sleep Apnea About More Than Night's Rest

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One third of us will struggle with our sleep at some point and for some, it is no more than an inconvenience; a good night's sleep can actually be a matter of life and death.

If you got a good night's sleep last night, you are part of a dwindling population. From work to money to family, life's little stresses add up.

"About a third to a half of us will struggle with our sleep at some point in our lives," said Dr. Chris Winter, the medical director at Martha Jefferson's Sleep Medicine Center. "Understand that if your sleep is not good it can be affecting lots of different parts of your life."

No one knows that better than T.A. Kegley. Kegley battled a slew of health issues over a 20 year period. After a sleep study, Dr. Winter determined all of them tied into his sleep apnea. It turns out it can be a matter of life and death. 

These days he is a fitness guru in the best shape of his life; the picture of health. But it was not so long ago he tipped the scales at almost 350 pounds and suffering from diabetes, not to mention blood pressure, kidney and urine tract problems. That led to a reality check from his doctor.

"He said, ‘If you don't take care of your diabetes and your high blood pressure, the best thing for you to do is go and pick yourself a funeral out,'" Kegley recalled.

As it turns out, Kegley was having a problem with his sleep, diagnosed with a simple sleep study.

"Forty-five minutes into it, a lady came to me and said, ‘You quit breathing about 57 times in the first 45-50 minutes," Kegley said.

It took 20 years to figure out, but five years ago his sleep study revealed Kegley had a serious case of sleep apnea.

"I think the likelihood that cardiovascular disease, or even death, would have taken him earlier is very high," said Dr. Winter.

Kegley's airway would collapse during the night so that air could not flow in and out of his body. He was fitted for a CPAP, or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure device; a specially designed nasal mask.

"Pressurized air comes through the hose to the patient's nose," explained Tabatha Greene, lead technologist at the Martha Jefferson Sleep Medicine Center. "The pressure is created in their airway; pops it open so they can breathe."

He started using the CPAP to sleep at night. Dr. Winter did not hear from him again until over a year later.

"Eventually, he resurfaced a year or a year and a half later," Dr. Winter recalled. "I walked in and said, ‘Hello, my name is Dr. Winter. What can I do for you today?' He looked at me and said, ‘It's me.' I kind of looked at the chart and didn't even recognize him."

Kegley was 166 pounds lighter just by getting his sleep apnea taken care of; and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

"By getting the sleep apnea taken care of, the blood pressure came back in line, the sugar came back in line," said Kegley.

Dr. Winter helped Kegley get his health and his life under control because Kegley recognized he had a problem. That is not usually the case.

"Something like 83 percent of men and 92 percent of women who have sleep apnea are walking around right now undiagnosed," he said.

Ironically it is the person lying next to most sufferers that eventually leads them to a sleep study, a diagnosis and, eventually, a good night's sleep.

"A lot of times it's their spouses that tell them they need to do this," said Registered Polysomnographer Robin Black. "They're tired of getting elbowed in the ribs getting bruises."

A simple solution for a serious and potentially deadly affliction. More and more people are working to get their sleep habits under control. In fact, Dr. Winter has become such a sleep expert that he is now working with the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, Major League Baseball's Dodgers and Giants, and even USA Hockey.

Reported by Steve Rappaport
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