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Sleep It Off

Sleep studies can help patients sleep well and live better

By Laura Pincus

When Peter Lombardi found himself yawning in the middle of the day or falling asleep while reading, he knew something was wrong. The 66-year-old retired city manager had always been a restless sleeper. He snored heavily and awoke several times throughout the night. In the last year or so, however, the symptoms worsened, and his cardiologist referred him to a Baptist Health Sleep Center.

Mr. Lombardi underwent a sleep study at the Sleep Diagnostic Center at South Miami Hospital, one of eight Baptist Health Sleep Centers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. He spent the night in a specially designed lab. As he slept, his brain activity, eye movement, oxygen blood level and heart rate were monitored.

Doctors use sleep studies to diagnose sleep disorders that, if left untreated, can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.

"Treating sleep disorders are such an important part of caring for patients. Often times, it plays a role in other illnesses — diabetes, obesity, heart disease and neuromuscular diseases like Parkinson’s," said Jeremy Tabak, M.D., medical director of Baptist Sleep Center at Galloway. "A sleep disorder can make symptoms worse and compromise a patient's health."

Sleep medicine is a multidisciplinary field. Sleep problems may be related to the central nervous or respiratory systems, to mental health, body mass or other symptoms. So sleep specialists often are neurologists, pulmonologists, psychiatrists, psychologists or ear, nose and throat specialists.

"The science of sleep really involves so many parts of the body," said Dr. Tabak, who is a pulmonologist, or lung specialist. "We understand that sleep disorders are not only difficult to live with but stress other systems in the body."

In Mr. Lombardi’s case, the study showed that he suffered from sleep apnea, a condition affecting more than 12 million Americans. Sleep apnea is characterized by breathing interruptions during sleep, which result from a collapse of the upper airway. People aren’t aware they have stopped breathing for repeated short periods, but the interruption in the sleeping cycles prevents sufferers from feeling rested. In severe cases, it can be related to life-threatening heart rhythm disorders.

To treat the apnea, Mr. Lombardi uses a CPAP machine (short for continuous positive airway pressure) while he sleeps. He wears a small mask that blows air through his nose, keeping his airway open.

"The CPAP machine is really the gold standard of treatment for sleep apnea," Dr. Tabak said. "It works the minute a patient starts using it."

Mr. Lombardi noticed the difference immediately. "The results have been great," he said. "I feel rested." With the help of the CPAP machine, his snoring has quieted, he wakes up less frequently and sleeps at least eight hours a night.

"I think people may be hesitant to do a sleep study. It is time consuming because you have to stay at the lab over night," he said. "I was very comfortable, though."

Comfort is a critical goal of the sleep centers, which were designed to encourage OR make it easy for patients to relax and repose. The lab resembles a hotel, and all the technicians who work at Baptist Health sleep centers are specially trained and licensed in sleep medicine.

In the case of 56-year-old Ronald Sokoloff, treating his sleep disorder has improved his quality of life. Mr. Sokoloff suffers from a neuromuscular disease similar to muscular dystrophy and, as a result, often struggled to breathe at night or when he lay down to rest. To help him, Dr. Tabak prescribed a BiPAP (bilateral positive airway pressure) machine, which works much like the CPAP except that it adjusts the air pressure for inhaling and exhaling.

"The machine has helped me tremendously," Mr. Sokoloff said. "Instead of going on disability because of my illness, I can work as a data analyst from my home. Then when I am tired and need to sleep, I can wear the unit and rest. I feel refreshed. It really has made a difference."

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