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Doctors warn: sleep apnea could lead to serious illness

Sleep apnea could lead to serious illness. Claudia Coco / WGXA News

MACON, Ga -- According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea. The most common type of sleep apnea is Obstructive Sleep Apnea, which means there's a blockage in the airway, but all types are potentially dangerous.

Brenda Bilow is a sleep apnea patient.

"Every time I went to bed, I would go to sleep for like an hour, an hour and a half, and then I'd wake up," Bilow said.

Bilow hadn't had a full nights sleep for the past year.

"Then I started with headaches when I was waking up in the morning," Bilow said.

Bilow was also tired throughout the day. Morning headaches and fatigue are two tell-tale signs of sleep apnea. Her primary care doctor sent her in for a sleep study, normally during the initial sleep study, they don't put a mask on you.

"Next thing I knew, they came in and said 'we're going to have to put this C-PAP machine on you,'" Bilow said.

She stopped breathing 124 times in just an hour and a half of the sleep study. Once they put the C-PAP on her she said that she didn't wake up until the next morning. That was the first time she slept through the night in months.

"He said I'm surprised you have not had a stroke or a heart attack in this length of time," Bilow said.

Bilow's case was the most severe that Dr. Mark Hendricks, a specialist in pulmonary critical care and sleep medicine, had ever seen. He said when you have sleep apnea you stop breathing, which has consequences.

"These episodes can occur 20 to 40 seconds in duration, can result in oxygen level becoming low, and changes in heart rate," said Dr. Hendricks.

He said patients often complain about restless sleep, increased daytime sleepiness, snoring, and morning headaches. Dr. Hendricks said if you're experiencing those symptoms its probably time to come in and get a sleep study done.

He said it's nothing to play around with.

"So there's an increased risk for high blood pressure, cardio vascular diseases, stroke, diabetes," said Dr. Hendricks.

Bilow's sleep apnea diagnosis changed her life.

"I'm back in the gym, I'm doing more shopping, and just I'm feeling a lot better," Bilow said.

Dr. Hendricks said that about 10% of Americans who have sleep apnea don't seek help. He said if you or your bed partner suspects that you have sleep apnea, go to your primary care doctor so they can refer you to a sleep specialist.

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