How Do You Sleep at Night?

photo of student sleeping on a book
photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

By Christopher Waide

February 25, 2020

            Sleep disorders are all too common among the American population. According to some estimates, 40 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder with 22 million suffering from sleep apnea alone. It’s estimated that 80 percent of moderate to severe cases remain undiagnosed. Other types of common sleep disorders include insomnia, parasomnia, Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS), circadian disorders, and narcolepsy. 

Circadian disorders occur when the body’s internal clock become misaligned with the light/dark cycle. These are fairly common (think jetlag) and usually resolve themselves as your body gets back to normal. Insomnia is categorized as a chronic inability to sleep. People suffering from narcolepsy might fall asleep anywhere for any reason. RLS sufferers will have unusual feelings in their legs such as tingling or pins and needles, needing to move their legs to stop the sensations. This is usually harmless, but those with this medical condition might be at risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, but the research is conflicting. That said, even without the risk of Parkinson’s, patients will still find the condition exasperating.

 Parasomnias are a subset of sleep disorders covering abnormal movements, behaviors, dreams, perceptions or emotions during any phase of the sleep cycle. Night terrors, sleep paralysis, and sleep walking are probably the most well-known parasomnias. Sleepwalkers can potentially harm themselves wandering in an unconscious state. Parasomnias are extremely unpleasant and can be very straining on a person’s mental well-being. 

Sleep apnea is the disorder most sleep clinics diagnose and treat. Sleep apnea is where a person will stop breathing periodically during their sleep. This is caused by blockages in the upper respiratory system. Weight and position can also be a factor, so your doctor may recommend losing weight or doing positional therapy. 

Even mild sleep apnea can put a lot of strain on your daily life. When you have an episode, your oxygen levels fall and your sleep cycle is interrupted, especially your REM cycle. This results in a low quality of sleep, causing a person to not feel rested. You might fall asleep in front of the television for hours; you may find that you have no patience or energy to get you through your day. If left untreated, a person may develop high blood pressure. Those with severe enough apnea might be at greater risk of heart disease and stroke. 

Strangely enough, the severity of apnea does not always sync up with the severity of a person’s waking symptoms. A person with mild apnea may experience the brunt of potential symptoms while a person with severe apnea might only get tested because they snore. Patients can choose lifestyle changes or a fitted mouth guard to treat mild apnea, but moderate to severe cases require a CPAP machine. The CPAP machine functions by keeping a continuous source of oxygen flowing to the patient.

For a patient, the sleep study itself can be quite uncomfortable. They are under audio and/or video surveillance while they sleep. Electrodes are attached to the patient in several places, leaving them to sleep attached to a number of wires. The patient’s breathing is monitored by a plastic sensor that’s placed under the nostrils, tickling them with every move. If a wire gets knocked off in the night, the patient will be awakened by the technician reattaching it. A patient might also be roused if they don’t roll in their sleep so readings can be gathered in all positions. 

Registered Polysomnographic Technologists (RPGST) are in high demand. There are currently more vacant positions than qualified graduates to fill them. RPGST’s work the graveyard shift. Apart from fitting the patients with electrodes, mostly they monitor patients while they sleep. Because most are there simply to diagnose apnea, there is very little pressure or risk of medical emergency. RPGST’s can expect to earn a modest but comfortable living with only a two-year degree required. GCC was the first campus in the state to offer a Polysomnographic Technology Program and remains the only program in Upstate New York and the Finger Lakes.

Students attending the program will be instructed by Marshann Thomas, Ed. M., RPSGT, RRT., Director of Polysomnographic Technology, who has headed the program since it opened a decade ago. The program offers two clinical practice opportunities for hands-on experience. After completing 61 credits of coursework relating to the field such as Physiology of Sleep Medicine, sections on infant and pediatric PSG, students may enter the workforce and have up to a year to complete their board exams to become fully licensed.