We spend a good chunk of our lives asleep. And we need it. Without a good night’s rest, we’re exhausted, can’t think straight and need a lot of coffee until we make it right back to bed again. On top of the usual exhaustion, what if you had a sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)? This condition can be serious to your short-term and long-term health and requires medical treatment.
Michelle Caron, a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, felt the serious effects of OSA her entire life. However, it took a while for the correct diagnosis.
At a young age, Caron remembers snoring, being sick more than others and having issues with anxiety. No one thought something serious was going on. At eight years old, doctors recommended she have her enlarged tonsils and adenoids removed. She began to feel a little better after the surgery. Her snoring was better, but it was still there every night.
In middle school and high school, Caron experienced severe anxiety, panic attacks, unexplainable fatigue and impaired memory. This affected every aspect of her life- socially, as a student, and a competitive swimmer. Thoughts kept rushing through her mind about if she had slept enough before a meet or would she remember all the words for her spelling test. Caron’s mother tried to help her study every night, but school was still harder for her.
The Breaking Point
It wasn’t until after college, when she was working full-time, that Caron suspected she was struggling with something more than exhaustion caused by stress and anxiety. It didn’t make sense that after 12-17 hours of sleep, she was still tired. Being a functioning adult with people relying on her, she could no longer skate by on fumes.
Caron recorded herself sleeping and brought it to her primary care physician. Due to her snoring and daily exhaustion, she was referred to a sleep clinic for further evaluation. So, at 23 years old, she had her first sleep study. That’s when Caron found out she stopped breathing 180 times throughout an average eight hours of sleep. She was only getting 1 hour of deep sleep, and her oxygen level dropped to 80%. The diagnosis: Caron has moderate obstructive sleep apnea.
Next Steps with OSA
OSA happens when muscles relax during sleep and cause part of the airway to collapse. This cuts off oxygen and disrupts sleep, as it had for Caron for years. Eric Davis, MD, explained OSA is more commonly seen in 9%-24% adults but can happen in children.
Caron first tried the standard treatment, sleeping with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. But she hated having something on her face. Discouraged, she decided to discontinue treatment for a few years and manage her symptoms as best as she could.
How does a CPAP machine work?
Davis shares, “Imagine riding a bicycle, and you get a flat tire. You need to pump air into the tire. CPAP works similarly by gently pumping air to open up your windpipe while you sleep. This improves airflow and treats obstructive sleep apnea.”
While researching other treatment options, Caron and her mother discovered the Inspire device. At first, she wasn’t interested in pursuing this option, as she felt uneasy with a permanent device and didn’t understand how this would affect her life.
The Inspire device is an implanted nerve stimulator that patients turn on at night. It moves the tongue forward to create more space for an open airway. Doctors recommend this treatment option for patients with moderate to severe OSA who can’t tolerate the CPAP machine. Symptoms drastically improve, and patients no longer snore. Currently, our providers have performed 36 Inspire device surgeries and 80% of our patients use it nightly.
The doctors explained to Caron that Inspire carries very little risk and wouldn’t limit her opportunities in life. In fact, treating her OSA with Inspire would give her more opportunities with less fatigue and less health risks. Slowly, she became more open to the idea. She decided to give it a try.
Tired of Being Tired
Mark Jameson, MD, and Olubusola Gomes, MD, worked with Caron to prepare her for the Inspire device. She had a sleep endoscopy to locate her obstruction. This confirmed that she qualified for this treatment. She then had to wait for insurance to approve the procedure. Finally, it did.
The timing wasn’t ideal. Caron had just started graduate school in Richmond. But she was only out of school for a week for recovery.
The journey wasn’t over. Patients don’t have the device activated for 4-6 weeks after surgery. This allows the swelling to go down and ensures a full surgical recovery.
For Caron, this meant even more waiting. But if anyone could persevere, it was Caron: “I’ve pushed through the exhaustion my entire life and never gave up.”
Even after turning the device on for the first time, Caron had to continue fine-tuning it. It was a learning curve at first. Caron had to adjust the device for over a year to find the right level of stimulation and algorithm she needed. She also had to find the right time to turn on the device to allow the best sleep. Sometimes it was hard to understand whether it was stress or school-related lack of sleep causing her fatigue.
A Good Night’s Sleep
She’s now experiencing more energy and focus. Normal activities no longer feel impossible. Caron will graduate with a Master’s degree in May and start seeking a full-time position.
Meanwhile, Caron’s been serving as a volunteer patient ambassador for Inspire. She shares her story to bring awareness to this sleep disorder. Caron says, “I hope more diagnoses are happening as young as possible.”
Do You Snore?
If you’re concerned about OSA, talk to your primary care provider.
Symptoms of Sleeping Disorders
Untreated, sleep disorders can damage more than just sleep. They can cause sore throat, headaches and dry mouth, increase your risk of diabetes and heart disease, as well as affect your memory.
Common signs you might have a sleep disorder include snoring, waking up frequently and exhaustion throughout the entire day. If you or your child has these symptoms, Davis recommends seeing a doctor. Most OSA patients have this condition their entire lives.