SPECIAL REPORT: Sleepless in the Valley

SPECIAL REPORT: Sleepless in the Valley

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Snoring may sound funny, but it could be deadly.

Millions of Americans may have it and not know, and if left untreated, it could cut years off your life.

Snoring, gasping for air, tossing and turning – sound familiar? You could have a sleep disorder you may want to get checked out, and here's why.

Bobby Malone, 38, of Columbus is wearing a device to keep from snoring

This CPAP machine, which stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, is a treatment for those with sleep apnea.

The sleep disorder occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax, which narrows or closes the airway and results in brief, repeated pauses in breathing during sleep.

Night after night of this drained Malone. He says he didn't have the energy to keep up with his three active kids or spend quality time with his wife Zehra and their newborn.

"From baseball to cheerleading," Malone said. "I could fall asleep sitting in the parking lot waiting for their functions."

Not just fall asleep, but snore.

"It was really loud," Zehra said. "I would typically have to go to bed before he would so I could fall asleep."

It wasn't just affecting his home life.

"I was complaining I was tired at work," Malone said.

Malone works at TSYS and said he found it difficult to just make it through the work day.

"I was sleep at lunchtime in my car," Malone said.

That's when he decided it was time to get checked out.

So he checked in to the Chattahoochee Sleep Center in Columbus. Opened since August 2011, this sleep lab diagnoses and treats a broad spectrum of sleep disorders.

Doctors say loud snoring may be more than a nighttime nuisance — it could be a sign of sleep apnea.

The best way to tell is with a sleep study, which goes like this:

Malone is put into a private room.

The technician puts electrodes all over, starting at his legs, up to his head, to monitor his activity while he sleeps.

Clinical Director Leticia Houston says many people don't realize just how important sleep is.

"Without sleep you can't get that full rest that your body needs to be able to make it through the next day," Houston said.

With Malone all wired up, now it's time to watch him sleep. The study can take between 6 to 8 hours.

So we wait for Malone to fall asleep. About 15 minutes into the study, there he goes.

Malone's vitals are monitored for signs of obstructive sleep apnea. All of this can been seen on a computer screen. A camera watches him while the technician watches the computer.

Each line is measuring a vital sign from eye movement, airflow, chest and abdomen compressions, oxygen levels and much more.

As the sleep center's Medical Director, Dr. Jonathan Liss goes over the study's results.

Dr. Liss says snoring alone isn't an indication of obstructive sleep apnea. He says what's important is if a person stops breathing for periods at a time.

"We count a problem if they go 10 seconds without breathing and some people will go 1-3 minutes without breathing," Dr. Liss said. "While they're sleeping they're doing everything to capture a breath."

"It turns out from the sleep study the last hour of my sleep, I would stop breathing," Malone said.

Malone would go 10 seconds without breathing, an average of 26 times per hour during the study.

His official diagnosis is Obstructive Sleep Apnea, and if untreated, can have serious health implications like stroke, heart attack and sudden death. Short-term consequences are depression and irritability.

So bottom line, how do you know if you may have sleep apnea?

"If they need extra sleep because the night of sleep wasn't good enough or if they just don't feel refreshed in their sleep regardless of whether they snore or not they need to be evaluated because there may be something very fixable," Dr. Liss said.

Other possible signs of sleep apnea include waking up with a dry mouth or sore throat, having a headache in the mornings, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, more than 18 million U.S. adults suffer from sleep apnea, and now Malone is one of them.

His CPAP sits on his nightstand to remind him to use it nightly. The mask fits over his nose and mouth with a long tube going to a small device.

"To help force air down your throat when you take a breath," Dr. Liss explained.

This keeps the airways open so that sleep apnea sufferers can breathe easily all night long – a welcome change for the Malone's.

"I think the number one thing is I don't snore," Malone said.

"With the machine things have gotten a lot better and he's sleeping better at night and I'm getting sleep," Zehra said.

Which is definitely important when you have three very active kids who enjoy the outdoors and a newborn.

What's the best part of the sleepy study besides not snoring, according to Malone?

"My wife's happy," he laughed.

This CPAP, which comes in various forms, is the most immediate remedy for sleep apnea but there are other treatments like losing weight, mouthpieces and surgery.

If you think you or your partner may have sleep apnea, taking steps to find out for sure can be crucial for overall health.

And join the conversation on social media by using the hashtag #NoSleep.

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