Shaquille O’Neal dominated the basketball court. At 7’1” and 325 pounds, he was intimidating everywhere except on the free-throw line. But when it comes to sleeping, Shaq proves that even a professional athlete can suffer from obstructive sleep apnea.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is so named because something is obstructing or blocking the airway — often the tongue falling against the back of the throat. Snoring is a sign that something is obstructing the airway, but it does mean that the person is breathing. Silence can mean that the airway is completely blocked.
“I don’t know if I snore because I don’t hear myself,” claims Shaq.
“Oh, he hears himself,” replies Nikki “Hoopz” Alexander, Shaq’s girlfriend. “Sometimes it wakes him up. But he stops. His chest would stop moving like he was not breathing.”
“Sleep apnea is actually a pretty common condition which is most likely under-diagnosed and under-evaluated because most people don’t realize that they have it,” Dr. Stuart Quan, Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School. “Obstructive sleep apnea is a chronic condition which is imminently treatable.”
When the airway gets blocked, the person doesn’t get enough air into their lungs and the level of oxygen in the blood falls while the level of carbon dioxide rises. This could be fatal if breathing does not resume within a few minutes. However, with sleep apnea, after a few seconds (to as much as 90 seconds), the brain wakes up and resumes breathing. The problem is that this requires the person to wake up too. So somebody with OSA is actually waking up over and over again each night. And while most people don’t wake up fully, it is enough to cause daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and insomnia. Lack of sleep also causes memory and concentration problems and mood swings.
If these symptoms sound familiar, you might want to talk to us or your regular physician. Tests might in order to determine if you have sleep apnea and to what degree.
“The evaluation of sleep apnea is a test while [the patient is] asleep,” says Dr. Geoffrey Gilmartin, Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School. Usually this involves either polysomnography or limited channel monitoring. Polysomnography involves simultaneously monitoring several physiologic signals — such as brain waves, eye movements, chin-muscle activity, airflow from the nose and mouth, chest and abdominal movement, blood-oxygen levels, heart rate and rhythm, and leg movements — while the patient sleeps. Limited Channel Monitoring measures a subset of these physiologic signals, focusing on breathing and blood-oxygen levels.
“Every second of the study will be looked at,” continues Dr. Gilmartin. “And then the physician will interpret it and make a conclusion.”
As for Shaq, he has moderate sleep apnea and chose a nasal CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) device. But this isn’t for everybody. Some people cannot sleep with a CPAP device, in which case an oral appliance might work better. Dental devices work by positioning the lower jaw forward, which also moves the tongue forward. According to Harvard Medical School, “Oral appliances should be constructed by a dentist experienced in the treatment of OSA.”
“Since I met with Dr. C (Charles A. Czeisler, PhD, MD), I’ve been getting at least seven, eight, nine hours of sleep a day. I feel good, the weight is good, got a lot of energy, the relationship is good at the house. Everything is working.”
To watch Shaquille O’Neal’s entire sleep apnea story, click here
If you would like to know more about sleep apnea, please visit our sleep apnea page and our sleep apnea treatments page. To make an appointment to see Dr. Matthews about problems sleeping, click here. We look forward to helping you and your loved ones sleep better soon.