Lab aims to put sleep disorders to rest
September 20, 2008
KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Servicemembers agonizing over sleepless nights may finally get some rest thanks to a new sleep lab.
The lab, run by the 18th Medical Operations Squadron at Kadena, helps diagnose and treat sleep disorders in servicemembers and Department of Defense civilians.
It’s the only such lab in Pacific Air Forces, said Maj. Peter Crawley, the sleep lab director and medical services flight commander.
For years, patients suffering from sleep problems would have to seek treatment out in town, which can be expensive, he said.
Last year, military physicians on Okinawa referred 300 patients to sleep study facilities in Naha, he said.
Crawley said as public awareness regarding sleep disorders increases, so does the number of patients seeking help.
Insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea, where breathing is interrupted during sleep, are frequent complaints, he said.
Since the lab opened three weeks ago, the waiting list has grown to 30 patients, Crawley said.
"Our culture as a whole is sleep-deprived," he said.
Crawley said adults need a minimum of eight hours of sleep each night, and children need even more, up to 12 hours.
For military members, especially, a good night’s sleep can be hard to come by.
Deployments, long work hours, combat and stress can cause sleep disturbances, Crawley said.
"Lots of shift work can make it difficult to get a regular sleep pattern," he said.
Sleep disorders are often associated with heavy snoring and excessive sleepiness during the day. Being overweight can make them worse.
Serious sleep disorders, like obstructive sleep apnea, can contribute to heart problems and high blood pressure, Crawley said.
Running on four to five hours sleep had become routine for Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Marc Hill of the 18th Wing Public Affairs office.
"You learn to live with it," he said.
After completing a study at the lab Monday, he said a diagnosis and treatment for his sleep problems will bring relief.
Hill said he’s struggled with sleep deprivation for 17 years, but he didn’t seek treatment out of fear of being dismissed by the Air Force Medical Evaluation Board.
Although his sleep problems never directly interfered with his ability to do his job, Hill said, he finally decided to schedule an appointment with a clinic in Naha.
Then, the sleep lab at the 18th Medical Group Clinic opened at the right time.
"It’s really a nice setup," Hill said of the lab.
The lab has two rooms equipped with comfy queen-size beds, diagnostic machines and electrocardiogram, or EKG, sensors that collect data on a person’s sleep patterns, including heart disturbances and brain activity.
Patients must be referred to the lab by their primary care physicians.
Servicemembers from mainland Japan or South Korea can be seen at the lab on Kadena Air Base or at a sleep lab in their area, Crawley said.
"It is often easier logistically for servicemembers to be seen in a sleep lab closer to home if it is available," he said. "Physicians contact us if they have questions about local sleep lab results or treatment modalities."
Treatments for sleep disorders vary. In cases of mild obstructive sleep apnea, orthodontic devices and stints can be used to open up the airways to decrease restricted breathing, Crawley said.
In severe cases, surgery may be considered.
Crawley and Tech. Sgt. Dario Gutierrez, who runs the 18th Medical Operations Squadron’s cardiopulmonary services, said using alcohol, over-the-counter and prescription sleeping pills can exacerbate a sleep disorder.
"That is the biggest myth that ‘I need an alcoholic beverage,’ or ‘I have to have a beer to go to sleep,’ " Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez said people can do their part to make sure they get adequate sleep. Regular exercise is important, but should be avoided right before going to bed, he said.