Death and Sleep Apnea: Carrie Fisher

News of actress Carrie Fisher’s death in December 2016 stunned the world, and as we learned several months later that the likely cause of death was sleep apnea and other undetermined factors, attention was turned to this serious sleep disorder. People who had not heard of the condition wondered exactly what it is, and those who suffer from sleep apnea grew concerned about their own condition. It is important to note that sleep apnea is rarely a direct cause of death, but it can lead to a range of potentially serious health problems such as heart attack and stroke that can be fatal. It can also increase the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart failure. In addition to sleep apnea, Fisher’s coroner’s report also cited atherosclerotic heart disease and “drug use”, which was unspecified. The report concluded that “The manner of death has been ruled undetermined.”

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common, yet serious sleep disorder that affects approximately 22 million Americans. It is a condition that causes breathing to become shallow or to stop completely for a few seconds to a minute. In severe cases, breathing can stop 30 times or more per hour. There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is caused by a blocked airway due to the muscles in the back of the throat relaxing during sleep; central sleep apnea, characterized by the brain failing to signal the muscles to breathe; and complex sleep apnea, a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea. Of all three types, OSA is the most common.

According to a study conducted by the researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, people with severe, untreated sleep apnea “have more than three times the risk of death from any cause compared to the general population.” While sleep apnea sounds scary and is a serious condition, it can and has been successfully treated for many years. The most common way to treat moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea is with various positive airway pressure machines that help open up a blocked airway; these include a CPAP machine (continuous positive airway pressure), BiPAP machine (bi-level positive airway pressure) and VPAP (variable positive airway pressure).

Know the Symptoms

Many people who suffer from sleep apnea are not aware they have the condition, because it occurs when they are sleeping. One of the telltale signs of sleep apnea is persistent, loud snoring and a snorting sound. Typically, a sleeping partner is the one who notices symptoms of sleep apnea. Other symptoms include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness and difficulty concentrating
  • Waking up gasping or choking
  • Morning headaches
  • Observed episodes of stopped breathing by a partner
  • Dry mouth or sore throat in the morning
  • Mood swings, irritability and depression

If you suffer from any of the symptoms above, talk to your doctor. If he or she suspects you have sleep apnea, you will be referred to a sleep specialist who will determine the type, severity and your best treatment options. Sleep science is evolving in such a way that modern equipment is not only effective, but more comfortable than ever. With the proper treatment, you can enjoy night after night of healthy, restorative sleep.

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What Are Sleep Apnea Oral Appliances?

Oral appliances are sometimes prescribed to help a patient who is suffering from sleep apnea. These products are generally recommended when the patient has obstructive sleep apnea, which is a specific type of sleep apnea in which breathing problems are caused by a partial or complete obstruction in the upper airway. This blocks the flow of oxygen coming in and may cause a number of sleep apnea symptoms, like snoring, daytime fatigue and gasping, choking or jerking awake while sleeping. Oral appliances help with this condition by moving the jaw or tongue into a position which helps to keep the upper airway open so the patient can breathe easily and enjoy more restful sleep.

There are two main types of oral appliances for sleep apnea. Mandibular advancement devices, also known as MADs, appear similar to orthodontic retainers or sports mouth guards. The MAD is fitted over the upper and lower teeth, then connected by a metal hinge. This hinge helps to push the lower jaw forward to keep the airway open. The second type of device is a tongue retaining mouthpiece, which looks like a MAD but also includes a small piece to fit around the tongue to keep it held forward. Both of these oral appliances are custom-fitted to the patient to ensure the best results.

One major benefit of using an oral appliance is that it may be a suitable treatment on its own without the need for a CPAP machine. This is less invasive, more comfortable and more convenient for those who are trying to manage their sleep apnea. However, some people experience jaw pain, soreness or excessive salivation when using oral appliances, and usually patients find the oral appliances are less effective than CPAP machines, so it’s important to find one that works for you. Talk to your doctor if you think an oral appliance may help with your quality of sleep.

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How Nebulizers Can Help Sleep Apnea

Most people associated nebulizers with conditions like asthma. But in fact, nebulizers can be used as part of a treatment plan for a wide range of health conditions, including sleep apnea.

Many patients with sleep apnea are prescribed CPAP therapy to help alleviate their condition and assure they get adequate oxygen throughout the night. However, in addition to this therapy, most doctors look for ways to alleviate any underlying conditions which may be contributing to the sleep apnea in their patient. This may involve certain lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol before bed, losing weight or quitting smoking, for example. These actions can help to reduce high blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, all of which may contribute to sleep apnea.

When it comes to other contributing health conditions, medications can be helpful as well. Nebulizers may be used as part of a sleep apnea treatment plan when the patient is suffering from certain respiratory disorder, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cystic fibrosis or asthma. The nebulizer delivers medication in mist form so that it can be inhaled directly into the lungs. When including this step before using a CPAP machine, the patient may be able to breathe better throughout the night and feel more comfortable using their CPAP therapy.

Nebulizers don’t replace CPAP machines, but they can help make the treatment more effective. It’s another way to make breathing easier for someone who has trouble with it while sleeping. If you think a nebulizer may help to improve your sleep apnea, talk to your doctor to find out if it’s an option he or she recommends for you. Some doctors may use nebulizers as part of a sleep study to help determine the proper course of treatment for your sleep apnea.

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CPAP vs. BiPAP – The Difference Between BiPAP & CPAP

If you have sleep apnea, your doctor may suggest CPAP or BiPAP therapy for your condition. But what are the differences between these two therapies, and which one is right for you?

How it Works

The definitions for each of these sleep apnea treatments helps to explain what each therapy does.

CPAP is the acronym used for continuous positive airway pressure. With this therapy, air pressure is generated by a machine and then delivered to the user through a face mask, which fits over the nose or mouth. A tube connects the CPAP machine to the mask. There is only one type of air pressure delivered with this type of treatment, but some CPAP machines do offer an option to gradually increase the level of pressure as a person falls asleep, which is generally more comfortable for the user.

BiPAP, on the other hand, stands for bi-level positive airway pressure. The setup for a BiPAP machine looks very similar to that of a CPAP machine; there is a tube connecting a machine to a mask over the nose or mouth. The biggest difference between BiPAP and CPAP is that BiPAP machines produces two levels of pressure – inhale pressure and exhale pressure – while CPAP only delivers a single pressure. This ultimately allows patients to get more air in and out of their lungs, and most machines have a breath timing feature that allows the pressure to be customized to achieve a desired breath rate throughout the night.

Which One to Use

BiPAP therapy is sometimes considered to be more comfortable for the user due to two different levels of pressure being delivered. However, it may be more expensive as well.

A doctor may recommend BiPAP therapy if a user is having difficulty with their CPAP treatment. Problems with tolerating CPAP therapy may occur with some users, however, new technologies have increased comfort levels for those using CPAP machines, so in most cases, CPAP will be the recommended treatment between these two options.

Special Circumstances

Beyond comfort issues, there are certain issues which may make BiPAP therapy a better fit for a patient’s sleep apnea treatment. Those who need additional respiratory support may be prescribed BiPAP instead of CPAP because the dual pressure of BiPAP helps eliminate extra carbon dioxide from the body. This works well for those who need high pressure settings or low oxygen levels during their treatment.

In addition, those who are suffering from other conditions besides sleep apnea may benefit from BiPAP therapy. The following are some of the conditions for which BiPAP treatment is sometimes recommended:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Pulmonary disorders
  • Neurologic disorders
  • Neuromuscular disorders

Talking to Your Doctor

Ultimately, you’ll need to confer with your doctor about these options so he or she can determine which is best for your health needs and comfort. You may be asked to participate in a sleep study to provide additional information before making this decision. Whether you end up using a CPAP or BiPAP machine to help with your sleep apnea, you’ll be able to get a more restful night’s sleep, and you’ll be protecting your health while you’re at it.

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No Rest

Daniel R., Early College High School

Ever since I was little, I have had trouble sleeping. At first my parents thought that it was because I had a lot of energy. After all, little kids tend to have a lot of energy to burn. However, the primary reason why I couldn’t fall asleep was because I was afraid of the dark. As a child I was very afraid of things that I did not understand, and to be honest I still am. I would not be able to fall asleep until it was very late or if my dad slept besides me. I was very afraid of spiders, snakes, and scorpions. One night, after we came home from the zoo, I could not fall asleep. I began to see the snakes and spiders everywhere on my room. I would cry a lot and was in a constant state of fear. Even though my father was there, I could still see them. It wasn’t until about four in the morning that I could fall asleep. So as a result the probable cause of my sleep disorder was my phobia to crawling animals.

As I got older, the reasons were different. My bedtime was always at 9:30 p.m. However if I wasn’t at bed by that time, I could not fall asleep. The reason why I couldn’t fall asleep if I went to bed late was unknown. However, I believe that it had to do with the idea that I had that if I didn’t go to bed I would not fall asleep. As I went to high school, I could still not fall asleep. The reasons were related to stress. My sophomore year was the first year I went to a public school, it was very stressful adjusting to the system. In order to fall asleep, I began to take melatonin 3mg pills. I began to fall asleep and was able to get rest. I have learned from my experiences and have discussed this with my friends and teachers to see if there any that were like me. In fact, one teacher, Mrs. Baker, had a son who had sleep apnea. She told me that her son was unable to breathe while sleeping and had to take him to the hospital for a time. Afterwards, she brought him home with a CPAP, which is a machine that monitors the breathing and vital signs of the baby. I have talked to people in order to help them and have recommended things for them to do. For example, to face their fears on order to sleep and finding ways to relax and reduce stress. The study of sleep is imperative because without sleep, the body deteriorate.

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Chainsaw Dad

Emily W., Columbia College Chicago

For as long as I can remember, I thought my dad was some sort of monster—family man by day, chainsaw by night. It sounds like a new sitcom, doesn’t it? The brand new show My Dad’s a Chainsaw! Series premiere this Friday at 7! Unfortunately, this is more like my own reality TV show. Growing up, I could often hear his snoring from my bedroom or our downstairs living room. I loathed family trips with my dad that would require us to sleep in the same room as his disturbingly loud and unpredictable snorts for air led to a sleepless night for me. On these nights, there would be a period of silence—a much-appreciated hiatus to the snoring—before a sound so loud would erupt from his gaping mouth it would practically shake the room. The chainsaw-like snore would make me jump, upsetting any attempt I made to sleep. Fed up with my dad depriving me of rest during our family vacations, I practically petitioned he not come on vacations with my mother and I. My mom began sleeping in our guest bedroom, expressing her frustrations and concerns to me, my parents’ relationship suffering.

My dad was unaware of how excessive his snoring was. Sure, he never felt refreshed in the morning and sometimes would wake in the night for seemingly no reason, but it couldn’t have been because of snoring, right? My dad thought it was normal to feel tired upon waking and simply wrote off his symptoms as side effects of being a smoker. My mom suggested to him for years he see a doctor about the snoring. It was not until he learned that his brother used a sleep apnea machine did he decide to finally look into it. After seeing his doctor and experiencing his first sleep studies—one of which involved a brash, pushy nurse named Olga—the results were in: severe sleep apnea. My mom was more concerned than he was. She was terrified at the idea of him having a stroke, a serious symptom of sleep apnea if left untreated.

“It’s not a problem anymore, but the machine was the hardest part to get used to,” my dad tells me, though I am sure it is more pleasant than having to deal with Olga again. “You have to make sure it’s plugged in, fill it with water, put on the mask, and turn the machine on.” A sleep apnea machine, or CPAP machine, continuously increases the air pressure in the user’s throat, allowing them to breathe easier. To keep users from getting a dry mouth during the night, the machine regulates humidity, which is why it is important for users to fill it with water. The machine has changed the way he approaches sleep, saying, “You can’t just fall asleep while watching TV; you have to decide when you’re going to sleep and prepare.” To some this may sound negative, the machine requiring preparation and for users to change their lax sleeping habits. With the increase of technology use in recent years, it has become common knowledge that “screen time” before bed—meaning TV, laptop, and phone use—affects one’s ability to both fall asleep and experience a good rest. By having to take that extra care of turning off the TV and making a conscious decision to sleep, using a sleep apnea machine is actually enforcing positive sleeping habits. Cutting before bed screen time and having a more structured sleep schedule are important steps to a healthier lifestyle.

I am so grateful that my father finally uses a sleep apnea machine. It means that both he and those around him are able to get a restful sleep. It does not sound like someone is trying to cut a tree down using a broken chainsaw down the hall at night anymore. Replacing it is the sleep apnea machine’s surprisingly quiet, peaceful hum. I am no longer bitter about vacation sleeping arrangements and actually look forward to spending time with my dad again. Now if only they had a machine for his sleeping walking…

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Sleep Disorders effect College Kids

Hayley McG.,  Lansingburgh High School

Sleeping disorders is affecting more and more people every year. College kids are a large part of the population that is being effected by sleeping disorder. There are many types of sleeping disorders but there are a few common types that a person is likely to develop. The first disorder is insomnia which is when a person has problems falling and staying asleep. Another is Obstructive sleep apnea which is intermittent airflow backstage during sleep. The final most common sleep disorder is sleep walking which is when a person will get up and walk around while sleeping. Sleep walking can be very dangerous because a person isn’t in their right state of mind and can possibly hurt themselves or others. Most college kids receive around 6 hours of sleep when 6-10 hours is recommended for young adults and adults. There are many negative effects of not being able to sleep well. A few consequences that affect people with minimum sleep are more illness, such as colds and flu; feeling stressed out, increased weight gain, lower academic performance and increased the chances of developing depression and anxiety. Another unfortunate effect of sleeping disorders is the chances of automobile accidents will increase greatly because some people will drive even though their full attention isn’t with them. Many students’ grades will suffer severely due to lack of sleep. Many students will be late to class or not even show up. Other students will hand in their assignments late or turn them in but not with 100% effort.  Students test scores may also plummet due to the fact of memory loss. When a person is lacking sleep, memorizing things becomes a much more difficult task. There are many steps to take to establish a good sleeping routine. Create a sleep-conducive environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable, and cool, sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows. Finish eating at least 2-3 hours before your regular bedtime will help you fall asleep better. Exercising is also a great method to help you fall asleep. Working out will make you tired, healthy, and improve your daily life! One should also avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol before bed. If a person feels very sleep deprived, they should visit a doctor soon to see if maybe they have a sleeping disorder. There are many signs that a person has developed a sleeping disorder. Some of the warning signs to look about for include, having trouble getting to sleep or wake up frequently during the night for a period of several weeks. Having nightmares or night terrors that interrupt your sleep can be a big sign of sleeping disorders. Having been told by someone that you stop breathing during sleep, especially if you have morning headaches or fall asleep easily during the day is a sign that a person would need to see a doctor as soon as possible. Sleeping disorders are common but there are many things a person can do to try and prevent them from affecting their lifestyle.

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CPAP gives Mother a better outlook on Future


Have you ever had that one special person in your house that you love dearly, but when it comes time to go to sleep you almost want to push their bed outside? This is how I live; a life of misery because of a common problem…snoring. My mother snores so loud that it rattles the boards on the second floor. So, after a doctor’s appointment and several household complaints, she was placed on a CPAP machine. I really can’t tell you how excited I was to finally have a cure for a 17 year problem.

I actually thought this was going to be a great invention and I would finally get a well-rested night of sleep. Boy was I wrong! I must say the snoring MAY have stopped; I am not sure because I couldn’t hear it over the CPAP machine! The machine is so loud that I still get little rest and am trying to figure out how to push the bed and machine outside. I would like to ask the doctors what they were thinking when they diagnosed her and placed her on the machine. Really doc, you did spend a night with her and actually heard how loud she snores? But doc, have you spent a night with the CPAP machine? I cannot be the only person that thinks this is so loud that I want to rid myself of the bed, CPAP machine, doctor, and now my mother!

Our family often wondered why my mother’s mood and temper were often off balance. She was so disappointed because of weight gain and sought several doctors for advice. It wasn’t until our family doctor decided to try sleep therapy and place her on a CPAP machine that things started to change. Sleep therapy devices are used by several people. Much of the time they are convenient and cost effective. All medical information on the CPAP is so accurate that my mother wakes well rested and ready to start a new day. I now enjoy a huge breakfast cooked by my well-rested and wide eyed mother. Now, I need to find out how to medicate myself for lack of sleep. So I ask, doc would you like to spend a night with me and find a bigger and better machine?

With all the laughs and jokes aside; the machine has been proven to assist those that have an obstructive airway. It passes air into your nasal cavity and mouth continuously to avoid disrupted sleep. One benefit of the CPAP machine is that you use the machine in your own home. It has added new heated air in some models to avoid the dry air that causes sore throats or nose bleeds. The machine has given my mother a well-rested night and a better outlook on the future.

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