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Healthy Balance

Does Your Child Need a Sleep Study?

Jackie and Chase Newton. Chase was treated for sleep apnea at UVA.
Jackie and Chase Newton. Chase was treated for sleep apnea at UVA.

Does your child snore loudly? Did you know loud snoring is most often the result of obstructive sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder for adults and children?

Sleep apnea is a condition marked by snoring and gasping for breath during sleep. In children, it’s often caused by oversized tonsils or adenoids that obstruct breathing and cause the child to wake up during the night.

The resulting sleep deprivation can cause a child to become hyperactive, irritable or inattentive. If left untreated, it can lead to learning disabilities. In adults, it can lead to excessive tiredness and even cardiovascular problems.

Anyone having trouble sleeping should consider getting a sleep study at UVA’s Sleep Disorders Center, which is accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. This overnight test monitors body functions such as brain activity, eye movements, breathing, blood oxygen levels and heart rate.

“Once we diagnose the problem,” says UVA’s Pearl Yu, MD, a pediatric sleep specialist, “we can offer effective treatments and get the child sleeping soundly, which is so important to a child’s development.”

One Family’s Sleep Apnea Story

Jackie and Charles Newton weren’t surprised when their son, Chase, was diagnosed with sleep apnea.

He had snored since he was a baby. But the Newtons were stunned to learn that he would need brain surgery to cure his condition.

By the age of 5, Chase had undergone two surgeries to remove his tonsils and adenoids — typical treatments for snoring children.

He continued to snore, however, and the Newtons were bewildered and frustrated.

Once Chase started kindergarten, Jackie recalls, he began to have occasional, unexplained tantrums that could last for hours. He also had severe headaches that would cause him to grab the back of his neck in agony.

Jackie pushed for a sleep study at UVA.

“His behavior wasn’t a problem at school,” explains Jackie, noting that he excelled academically. “But [at home], the floodgates would unleash into outbursts … He was just exhausted and in pain.”

Getting Answers at UVA

Chase was evaluated by Yu, who is one of the nation’s few board-certified pediatric sleep specialists.

A sleep study revealed that Chase had central sleep apnea syndrome, a rare form of the sleep disorder caused by the brain’s failure to send proper signals to the breathing muscles during sleep.

Just like obstructive sleep apnea — the more common form — the syndrome causes a person to stop breathing momentarily.

Chase’s sleep study recorded more than 200 episodes of central apnea, each one causing him to stop breathing for 20 to 40 seconds.

“Chase wasn’t getting the kind of deep, restful sleep that’s so vital to restoring our minds and helping us function each day,” Yu says.

A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan revealed a Chiari Type 1 malformation — a congenital, structural skull defect that occurs when a portion of the brain’s cerebellum descends into the opening where the brain stem attaches to the spinal cord.

After four surgeries, led by UVA neurosurgeon John Jane Jr., MD, Chase was nearly cured of his sleep apnea.

Advice for Parents

Jackie’s advice to others who may face a puzzling medical condition: “I want other parents to know that not every behavior issue is related to a [developmental disorder such as] ADD or ADHD,” Jackie says. “Follow your instincts if you feel that there is an underlying issue.”

She adds, “There is good help out there. We found a support group and good doctors. Dr. Yu and Dr. Jane are both incredibly gifted and dedicated physicians.”

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