Hospital sleep laboratory helps diagnose and treat nocturnal disorders Problems can go beyond insomnia


January 19, 1993|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Staff Writer

Before he visited the Center for Sleep Disorders at Howar County General Hospital, Mark Forsman would fall asleep behind the wheel, kick his wife in bed and snore heavily. His extreme sleepiness was putting a strain on his marriage.

"We'd almost get into a few arguments," said his wife, Lanita, a nurse at Howard County General Hospital. "Mainly, I was concerned about him staying at home with the baby."

A year ago, the clinic diagnosed and treated Mr. Forsman for the problem: obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder in which the airway is blocked and the sleeper stops breathing for brief periods.

"It made a whole world of difference," said the 30-year-old Catonsville resident, a security officer at the hospital.

Last year, the Center for Sleep Disorders evaluated more than 500 patients for disorders ranging from sleep apnea to insomnia to nocturnal myoclonus, or "restless leg" syndrome, in which the sleeper experiences brief muscle contractions that cause the leg to jerk throughout the night.

The hospital has operated Howard County's only sleep laboratory for five years.

Several area hospitals, including Francis Scott Key Medical Center, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and Suburban Hospital in Montgomery County have sleep centers.

Carroll County General Hospital plans to add one by March.

Dr. Tom Balkin, a certified sleep specialist at Howard County General, said sleeping problems can disrupt a person's life and endanger public safety by contributing to traffic and industrial accidents.

"People fall asleep during meals, while having sex," Dr. Balkin said. "People who have sedentary jobs are in danger of losing their jobs."

More than 100 million Americans of all ages fail to get a good night's sleep, according to the American Sleep Disorders Association. In the last century, Americans have reduced their average night's sleep by 20 percent. Experts say adults should sleep at least seven hours a night.

At the Center for Sleep Disorders, patients sleep in two rooms decorated in soft pastels and equipped with microphones and 24-hour infrared video cameras to record the movements of the legs, eyes and chest. Long, thin wires connect electrodes to a patient's head and chin to trace brain waves, heart rate, eye movements and muscle tension. Also measured is air flow from the nose and mouth along with breathing patters and the amount of oxygen in the blood.

The information is fed into a computer, which displays it on a monitor. Sleep lab technicians observe the monitor continuously.

Insurance companies usually reimburse patients for the $920 sleep tests.

Before he was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 1991, Mr. Forsman thought he was suffering from allergies and sinus problems. Despite allergy shots, "I was still sleepy," he recalled.

Later that year, he switched doctors and underwent a sleep test. Now, Mr. Forsman sleeps each night with a continuous positive airway pressure unit, an air compressor attached to a nasal mask by a long, corrugated tube. The $1,350 device forces air through the nasal passages and into the airway, under gentle pressure, keeping it open and allowing the person to sleep and breath normally.

Mr. Forsman said the machine has given him a new lease on life.

"I can live with this. It's not inconvenient," he said. "I'm glad there's something out there for people like me."

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