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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 July, 2004, 23:18 GMT 00:18 UK
Why a lack of sleep can be fatal
By Melissa Jackson
BBC News Online health staff

Man yawning
Excessive sleepiness can ruin your life
We all know the curse of Monday morning syndrome - waking up feeling totally exhausted, and wishing it was the weekend again.

Most of us crave more sleep, especially when we are the parents of young children.

But imagine having a condition where you cannot keep your eyes open at dinner parties or behind the wheel of your car.

Sleep disorders are not just embarrassing to sufferers, but potentially life-threatening and experts believe that people are not receiving an accurate diagnosis in the UK.

Sleep disorders in turn cause excessive sleepiness, which affects about 6% of adults or 3.5 million people in the UK.

Untreated excessive sleepiness is a major contributing factor to serious road accidents, lost productivity and the breakdown of marriages and relationships.

People with sleep apnoea and hypopnoea syndrome (OSAHS), which cause people to wake up many times during the night, are at higher risk of developing an excessive sleepiness condition because they get fragmented, poor-quality sleep.

The condition is also associated with Parkinson's Disease and Multiple Sclerosis.

Consequences of untreated OSAHS include strokes, mood problems, impotence and memory loss.

Sleep driving

Frank Govan, 65, a sleep apnoea patient, said the condition nearly cost him his life and that of his family.

Sleep apnoea occurs when the muscles of the throat collapse during sleep, blocking off the windpipe, causing the patient to stop breathing.

Mr Govan battled with it for about 10 years before he was diagnosed.

It started when he was in his late 40s.

He said: "I was waking up in the morning feeling like I had been in a boxing match.

I became more and more sleep deprived, to the point where I would stand at the train station and wonder if I had the energy to get to work
Frank Govan, sleep apnoea patient
"I became more and more sleep deprived, to the point where I would stand at the train station and wonder if I had the energy to get to work."

He held a senior role as a tax consultant in the City, but once fell asleep during a face-to-face meeting with a client.

"Eventually, the desire for sleep becomes overwhelming," he said.

But worse was to come.

"I fell asleep twice on the M6. On the first occasion it was only momentary, for a few seconds.

"But on the second occasion I was driving back from Scotland with my wife and two teenage sons in the car.

"I moved from the fast to the slow lane and woke up when a lorry hooted at me. The family had fallen asleep and I went with them.

"This was one of the triggers that made me go and see an expert."

Simple solution

His inability to stay awake during the day was becoming progressively worse.

He said: "I would come home from work and just fall asleep. If I went to a dinner party, as soon as the main course was over I would fall asleep. I never ate dessert.

"My wife thought I was working very hard and I was burnt out and that's what most GPs think if they aren't trained in sleep disorders.

Frank Govan, sleep apnoea patient
Frank Govan was not diagnosed for 10 years
"They think you're suffering from stress or insomnia."

Fortunately, at one dinner party, he managed to stay awake long enough to describe his symptoms to one of the other diners, who happened to be an ear, nose and throat surgeon.

He was referred to Professor John Stradling, at the sleep unit at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford.

He was treated using a Continuous, Positive, Airway, Pressure (Cpap) machine and the normal life he thought he had lost returned overnight.

The machine keeps the airways open, to enable the patient to have uninterrupted sleep.

He now hooks up to the machine every night and his life is his own again.

He said: "I had a very strange experience. I had one day in hospital on the machine and the next day I was cured."

He is now chairman of the Sleep Apnoea Trust and believes doctors and politicians need to give the condition greater priority.

Dr John Shneerson, director of respiratory support at the Sleep Centre, at Papworth Hospital, Cambridgeshire, said: "Today's society requires a constant readiness to work and socialise and as a result people often do not want to admit to having excessive sleepiness or seek help.

"Although excessive sleepiness is a common debilitating symptom of a number of chronic medical conditions, many people who experience sleep-related problems are reluctant to trouble their doctor."

Work performance

Excessive sleepiness is a major contributing factor to road accidents accounting for 20% of motorway crashes.

Research by the Sleep Alliance shows that at work, 43% of OSAHS patients surveyed felt that the condition affected their performance and they could not pursue promotion or business opportunities as a result of excessive sleepiness.

For many, the effects were compounded by the delay in diagnosis and treatment; over a third of respondents waited 10 years or more before consulting their GP after they were told they snored loudly, a common symptom of OSAHS.

Professor John Stradling, the clinical director of the Sleep Unit at Churchill Hospital, Oxford, said: "Unfortunately, society as a whole is guilty of trivialising excessive sleepiness as a medical symptom.

"This is echoed by the low priority placed on local sleep services within the NHS and public awareness of sleep disorders.

"Yet, relatively small investment is required to treat and manage patients with excessive sleepiness."

The Sleep Alliance, an umbrella group of stakeholders and organisations with an interest in sleep and the consequences of excessive sleepiness, is urging the government and the NHS to allocate resources for sleep services.

It wants greater recognition of the impact of sleep-related disorders, and the financial resources needed to support an adequate infrastructure for the management of excessive sleepiness.

When snoring becomes a nightmare
20 Aug 03  |  Health
Sleep disorders costing millions
25 Jun 03  |  Health
'My snoring kept everyone awake'
04 Apr 03  |  Health

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