Alicia Hernandez thought waking up on the wrong side of the bed for many years was normal.
She thought dozing off in the middle of the day was a result of a bad night's sleep. She also thought feeling just a tad bit too cranky all of the time was just her way.
Most of all, she thought her incessant snoring was just a bad habit.
"I always felt like I didn't get enough sleep," said the San Juan resident. "I was always so tired and grumpy."
What Hernandez, 51, didn't know was that she was suffering from an undiagnosed case of sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is when a person's breathing stops or gets very shallow while asleep, according to the Journal of American Medical Association. Apneic episodes vary between 10 to 20 seconds of stillness until the person starts breathing again. Approximately one in five adults have at least a mild case of sleep apnea, with as many 18 million affected by the disorder.
Often people with sleep apnea don't even know they have it.
The most common form of apneic episodes involves gasping or choking sensations.
As in Hernandez's case, only another person in the same room notices this lapse of breath, rarely the sleeper.
In a given night, the number of involuntary breathing pauses or "apneic events" may be as high as 20 to 60 or more per hour, according to the National Sleep Foundation. These breathing pauses are almost always accompanied by snoring between apneic episodes, although not everyone who snores has this condition, the Web site states.
Other symptoms include morning headaches, falling asleep while at the wheel or dozing off while inactive, said Yvette Chavez, office administrator for the South Texas Sleep Center in McAllen.
Hernandez, a risk management clerk for the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district, sat in on a presentation provided by the All Valley Sleep Center in San Juan. That was where she noticed how much she related to certain symptoms.
"I was convinced I needed to get checked out," she said. "I thought snoring was normal and that it was just me feeling tired."
Sleep specialists encourage patients to talk to their family physician, who must refer patients to a sleep clinic for an overnight sleep study. These sleep studies record a person's sleep, brain waves, body movements, heartbeat and breathing to determine a diagnosis, said Vicente Solano, a registered nurse and owner of the All Valley Sleep Center. A sleep study also monitors arousals, when breathing stops and when the person is suddenly awakens to inhale and resume breathing.
Sleep specialists have special training in sleep medicine and can help determine the appropriate treatment.
Like Hernandez, 45, was diagnosed with sleep apnea two years ago. However, his case was much more severe.
Instead of the average 160 apneic episodes sufferers experience, Hernandez would stop breathing 264 times in one night's sleep, for up to one minute at a time.
He didn't know this until his wife told him what was happening after he fell asleep.
"I wasn't even snoring. I just wasn't breathing for a whole minute and that was scary when I found out," he said. "I always wondered why I needed to drink two to three cups of coffee and Red Bull during the day."
Before he was diagnosed, his body was beginning to react to the effects of sleep apnea. Studies show that people with moderate-to-severe sleep apnea are three to four times more likely to have a stroke, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Approximately 50 percent of those with sleep apnea have high blood pressure and are at risk for a heart attack.
During sleep, the body may rest but brain activity does not, Hernandez said. Therefore, once the person stops breathing for those seconds, the heart rate goes up, causing the body to overwork.
"I thought I was just getting older and feeling tired was normal for my body," he said. "But this is something real, not brand new, but something that is definitely out there."
When 43-year-old NFL great Reggie White died in 2004, it was said sleep apnea was a contributing factor to his early death, reason enough to send Hernandez straight to a doctor's office.
"I didn't want that to happen to me," he said. "That was my wake-up call."
People most likely to have or develop sleep apnea include those who snore loudly and also are overweight, or have high blood pressure, or have some physical abnormality in the nose, throat, or other parts of the upper airway, according to the NSF.
Although sleep apnea is more common in middle-aged men -- more so blacks, Hispanics and Pacific Islanders -- one out of 50 middle-aged women suffer from sleep apnea. After menopause, this risk skyrockets, said Barbara Phillips, a doctor and chairman of the National Sleep Foundation board of directors, and the symptoms will confuse physicians.
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Source: Health & Wellness