Rest Assured

Finding Help For Sleep Apnea

by Jenni Hart

By the time Gilda Thompson participated in a Duke sleep study in 2011, she had already struggled for years with extreme fatigue, worsening hypertension, and what she describes as a short temper. “There were days when I couldn’t even function,” she says. Diagnosed with hypertension decades earlier, Thompson was accustomed to regular cardiology check-ups and medication changes. But this exhaustion was a troubling development, and it was only getting worse. When she moved to the Triangle area in 2010, Thompson was relieved to find that her new doctor listened closely and took her concerns seriously. “My doctors in Ohio never even mentioned the possibility of sleep apnea,”
she says, disappointed that she suffered for so long without a proper diagnosis. Following her sleep study, the resulting treatment – sleeping each night with the aid of a CPAP machine – finally gave Thompson her life back.

The continuous positive airway pressure machine – or CPAP – is one treatment option for individuals diagnosed with sleep apnea. Although not every patient is an ideal candidate for a CPAP machine, Thompson reports feeling immediate relief from the foggy thinking, fatigue and bad mood that had plagued her for years. “When you ask people what they would grab first in a fire, they usually say their purse,” Thompson says. “I would grab my CPAP machine first, then my purse.”

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea, where the upper airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep. Sleep researchers report cases where breathing stops 100 or more times in a single night. The lack of oxygen to the brain causes some people to wake up gasping for air. More than a mere nuisance, untreated sleep apnea can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity and diabetes. And because it can lead to fatigue and reduced mental clarity, sleep apnea also increases the likelihood of work-related and driving accidents. Yet in spite of the serious nature of sleep apnea, many who have the chronic condition aren’t even aware of it.

infographic courtesy of the national heart, lung, and blood institute

infographic courtesy of the national heart, lung, and blood institute

Dr. Barbara Burggraaff

Dr. Barbara Burggraaff

Dr. Barbara Burggraaff, board certified in both otolaryngology (ENT) and sleep medicine, treats many patients whose first call to her practice is prompted by a concerned family member or sleeping partner. Loud snoring or disrupted sleep, common signs of sleep apnea, may go unnoticed by patients, even as those around them suffer. At Burggraaff’s North Raleigh practice, Sleep and Sinus Centers of North Carolina, patients can schedule a sleep lab study to have the quality and quantity of their sleep measured during an overnight stay. Although patients have the option of taking equipment home to conduct a self-administered sleep test, Burggraaff says a night in the sleep lab provides the most thorough and reliable results.

“We’re looking for a numerical value, a way to determine whether a patient’s condition is mild, moderate or severe,” she says, adding that treatment is most effective when it is based on a patient’s specific numbers. In the sleep lab, which Burggraaff compares to a comfortable, hotel-like environment, monitoring equipment records heart rate, blood oxygen levels and electrical activity in the brain (EEG), offering invaluable insight into the patient’s sleep experience. Along with a thorough diagnosis, Burggraaff offers patients the best news many have heard in a long time: Sleep apnea is a treatable condition.  

The CPAP machine, which Burggraaff describes as a sort of “air splint” to maintain an open airway, is the right approach for some. Because patients sometimes find CPAP machines uncomfortable and unwieldy, however, compliance can be a challenge. For patients with mild to moderate sleep apnea, she may recommend a dental appliance to bring the lower jaw forward and improve the airflow. Other possibilities include surgical options, which can be performed on an outpatient basis and are designed to reduce or remove the physical barriers blocking the patient’s upper airway. One of the most common in Burggraaff’s clinic is a coblation procedure that targets obstructive tissue at the base of the tongue. Coblation can also be performed on nasal tissue when indicated. Optimal results often require multiple coblation sessions, but most patients report little to no discomfort, and the success rate is very promising.

A sleep apnea diagnosis should be seen as a positive development, an opportunity to address the underlying cause of conditions ranging from loud snoring and frequent headaches, to the potential for serious heart disease and stroke. For the estimated 12-18 million Americans who have sleep apnea according to the NHLBI, early diagnosis and treatment can greatly improve their health and quality of life. If you suspect that you or a loved one may have sleep apnea, you can find more information, as well as a helpful quiz to gauge your daytime sleepiness, by visiting