GREENFIELD — For months, Knightstown resident Sandy Pickering was exhausted. She woke up four to five times a night. She had to take naps throughout the day in her car just to get through her work shift.
It never occurred to her something might actually be wrong. Then, one day in early winter, she was traveling on State Road 3 between Muncie and New Castle when she fell asleep at the wheel. Her car crossed the center line and cut off a police cruiser before she suddenly awoke. Though her car hadn’t collided with anything, the police officer stopped her and questioned whether or not she’d been drinking alcohol. But all she’d had was coffee.
That brush with disaster brought Pickering to the sleep center at Hancock Regional Hospital, where physicians work to determine whether a medical condition is disrupting a person’s rest. And at the end of last year, Pickering finally had an answer for what was making her so sleepy — and started on the path to addressing a sleep disorder.
For 10 years the sleep center has been diagnosing sleep apnea, narcolepsy and periodic limb movement disorder. Since then, it has expanded its services to offer EEGs and now can do both sleep studies and EEGs off-site in patients’ homes.
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It’s one of the only centers in the country with the technology and staff to perform the studies in long-term health and rehabilitation facilities as well, hospital officials said.
According to the National Institutes of Health, about 50 to 70 million people are affected by chronic sleep disorders.
If people have a hard time falling asleep or maintaining sleep, snore loudly or gasp, experience sleep disruption, feel unrefreshed after a full night’s rest, feel fatigued during the day, experience unusual behaviors while sleeping and have general aches and pains, they might have a sleep disorder.
A sleep study, which takes about six hours, can help diagnose the disorder and help patients get treatment.
Untreated sleep disorders have been linked to serious health problems, like high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, depression and diabetes, according to the institute.
For months, Pickering was experiencing bouts of depression and high blood pressure in addition to her exhaustion.
“I felt terrible,” she said. “I knew there was something going on — I had to address it.”
Staff at the sleep center called it severe sleep apnea, a disorder that causes a person to stop breathing repeatedly during sleep because of a collapsed airway.
The disorder results in a sleeping person being roused. Those with severe sleep apnea experience about 30 respiratory problems an hour; Pickering was having 60, said sleep center director Randy Campbell.
Having a diagnosis and a treatment for it has changed Pickering’s life.
Since beginning the treatment, Pickering no longer wakes up in the middle of the night or takes her blood pressure medicine.
She’s more rested at work and has started to exercise more.
“It’s had a positive effect on my entire life,” she said.
The center is busy night and day, Campbell said. During the day, staff typically perform EEGs — those don’t require patients to fall asleep — and at night, they perform sleep studies.
The technology can reveal underlying causes for disturbed rest, but the reality is many sufferers don’t realize they have a medical problem, so they don’t seek help.
“Most people say, ‘Oh, I just sleep a little bad,’ but it’s more than that,” Campbell said.
The effects of poor sleep can manifest not only in a person’s feelings of well-being but also productivity at work.
Patients with sleep disorders often say their fatigue has led to them almost being fired, Campbell said.
Many come to the center with strange stories about what is happening to them during the night, stories doctors are tempted to disbelieve until they see the behavior on video during a study.
One woman sang “Peter Cottontail” while sound asleep.
Some kick their legs so much it looks as if they’re riding a bike.
“We see some crazy stuff,” Campbell said.
They make for fascinating — even humorous — stories, but any issue that disrupts sleep is a problem, Campbell said.
Pickering is happy she was able to find a diagnosis for what was interrupting her sleep, and her experience at the sleep center, which is decorated similarly to a hotel room, was wonderful, she said.
“Going somewhere to watch TV and sleep? That’s vacation,” she said.
She slept for only three to four hours, but when she woke up the next morning, she felt the most rested she had in months.
Some patients are less comfortable sleeping outside of their homes or can’t be away for an entire night. Still, if they are looking for a diagnosis, the sleep center can help.
Offering tests that can diagnose sleep apnea and epilepsy at home is convenient for patients.
For long-term EEGs, 26 electrodes are attached to the scalp for four days to continuously monitor the patient’s brain activity.
Having the study done in the home is more convenient and comfortable for patients who would rather avoid a four-day hospital stay, Campbell said.
Sleep center staff go to patients’ homes and set the tests up. They then monitor them overnight or during the next four days through video and other recording equipment.
Regardless of where the EEGs or sleep studies are performed, patients usually have results in a few days.
And the tests are covered by most insurance plans, Campbell said.
Patients shouldn’t ignore symptoms because undiagnosed sleep issues can lead to a wide variety of problems, Campbell said.
“It’s not just about being tired,” he said. “It can affect your whole life.”
If you experience any of the following symptoms, you could be suffering from a sleep disorder:
- Difficulty initiating/maintaining sleep
- Loud snoring or gasping
- Disrupted sleep
- Unrefreshed sleep
- Daytime fatigue
- Aches and pains, especially the back
- Unusual behaviors during sleep (sleep walking or talking)
Source: Hancock Regional Hospital