Dr. Judith Overton’s story: finding relief for sleep apnea

doctor holding a stethoscope and a clipboard that says sleep apnea in black print

About 39 million adults in the United States have obstructive sleep apnea. Dr. Judith Overton, a medical director with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, recently found out that she’s one of them.

And like most people with obstructive sleep apnea, she wasn’t aware she had a problem until a colleague urged her to get checked out. She went for a sleep study, and the results surprised her.

“I didn’t connect the dots,” Dr. Overton says. “I’m a different person now.”

Not just a “snoring problem”

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition where your breathing gets interrupted for more than 10 seconds at a time more than five times per hour.

The interrupted breathing happens when the muscle and soft tissue at the back of your throat collapses or sags down into your airway, and the soft tissue and your tongue block or partially block your airway. The oxygen levels in your blood start to drop, which signals to your brain to wake up and start breathing again. You may not even be aware that it’s happening, but it can happen over and over again, all night long.

About 90% of people with obstructive sleep apnea don’t realize they have the potentially serious condition, which can range from mild to severe.

Dr. Overton didn’t realize that she had developed signs of sleep apnea. She had become increasingly fatigued during the day. She also started consuming more soda and tea to get a hit of caffeine to keep her awake. And she started napping every day around lunchtime.

She was also snoring at night, which worried her husband. After a while, he suggested that she try sleeping in another bedroom so he could get some rest at night.

“I thought I had a snoring problem, not a sleep problem,” says Dr. Overton. “But snoring is a sleep problem.”

In fact, snoring is a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea, when it’s interrupted by brief periods of quiet. Other symptoms include:

  • sleepiness the next day
  • morning headaches
  • irritability
  • difficulty concentrating and remembering things
  • depression

Dr. Overton got online to search for an oral appliance that she could wear at night, hoping it would curb the snoring. When she asked Dr. Andrew Vernon, medical director for sleep medicine for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, for advice, he said, “I think you need to get a sleep study done.”

Dr. Overton was surprised.  “I didn’t think I needed one,” she says. “I wasn’t waking up at night that I was aware of. My husband said I wasn’t gasping for air. But then I went to a sleep clinic and got the study, and lo and behold, I had significant sleep apnea.”

CPAP treatment

Dr. Overton’s sleep doctor recommended that she try CPAP therapy, which is frequently recommended for people with obstructive sleep apnea. About 33 million adults in the U.S. use a CPAP machine to manage their obstructive sleep apnea.

CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. A CPAP machine uses mild air pressure to keep your airways open so you can breathe while you sleep. It has several components, including the machine with a motor, a mask that fits over part of your face, straps to keep the mask in place, and a tube that connects the mask to the machine.

Dr. Overton keeps her CPAP machine next to her bed. At night, she puts the mask on—she uses a version called a nasal pillow mask that’s smaller and just covers the front of her nose—and adjusts the chin strap to keep it in place. Then she pushes a button on the machine to turn it on and start the flow of air. Finally, she settles down on her side for a good night’s sleep.

“It’s taken some getting adjusted to,” admits Dr. Overton. “But I just feel so much better during the day that it’s worth getting used to.”

Indeed, now she feels rested when she wakes up in the morning, and she has more energy all day long. She doesn’t fight off waves of midday fatigue. Her concentration levels and focus have improved, too.

“I am so grateful to Dr. Vernon for suggesting this because I don’t know that I would have brought it up when I saw my primary care doctor,” she says. “I would have said that I was sleeping fine because I would just crash so hard at night.”

In addition to just feeling better, Dr. Overton notes that getting good quality sleep every night is good for her overall health, including her heart health.

“If you’re really sleepy during the day, or you’re a really loud snorer or have other sleep issues, don’t minimize them,” she says. “Just talk to your doctor. Even if you don’t think you have a problem, it may be worth getting evaluated to find out for sure.”

WellTuned sleep resources

Sleep connected to heart health
7 tips for sleeping soundly
Guide to natural sleep aids

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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