They’ve watched patients talk, walk and even get into fights with invisible people.
The doctors at the area sleep labs say they have seen it all.
There are about 84 recognized sleep disorders, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. They’re not all as easily cured as sleep apnea, which can usually be treated by diet and exercise or the use of a special mask to assist breathing.
Some patients need medicine, sometimes more than one kind. Others need psychological help to get to sleep at night, and still others require both.
“I have this one patient who has narcolepsy,” said Dr. John Rummel, director of the Memorial Health System sleep lab. “She just thought she had to live this way.”
Narcolepsy sufferers experience excessive daytime sleepiness and frequent sleep attacks.
Rummel’s patient has to get up and walk around at work to keep from falling asleep. Sometimes, he said, she sleeps right through the weekend, not waking up from Friday night until Sunday afternoon. Even the five alarms she sets aren’t enough to rouse her some mornings.
“So the neighbor has a key, and she goes in to wake her up,” he said. “When you talk to her, you realize that this is all just normal for her. She said her job as a child was to keep her father awake while he was driving — he would just nod off.”
So after a daytime sleep study, called a multiple sleep latency test, Rummel prescribed the woman medication. She now takes a stimulant during the day and medicine to help her sleep better at night.
“It’s given her a life,” he said, “and that can be very rewarding.”
One in about 25,000 people has narcolepsy. Rummel sees about 36 patients who suffer from the disorder.
As people become more educated about sleep disorders — and more medicines are made available — other disorders are being diagnosed at a greater frequency. Restless leg syndrome is an example, said Dr. John Newcomer, director of the sleep lab at Colorado Springs Health Partners.
“People see the medicine advertised on television, and their spouse says, ‘That’s what you do.’ So they come here and sure enough, they have it,” he said. “We see a fair number of patients with that problem.”
Other patients have disorders that fall into the category of parasomnia or, as Rummel puts it, “things that go bump in the night.” Sleep walking, sleep talking and night terrors all fall into that category. About 10 percent of the population has some kind of parasomnia, according to sleep experts. Many of them are children.
“But there are other things — eating disorders while sleeping, violent behaviors,” he said. “Those are really rare. Some of those disorders, like sleep talking, are harmless. Others can harm the patient and the people around them.”
Sleep labs can’t help all kinds of sleeping disorders. Insomnia, for instance, normally has a psychological cause rather than a physical one, Newcomer said.
The challenge is to educate primary care doctors so they don’t automatically hand over a prescription for Ambien but instead consider a recommendation for therapy, he said.
“That’s when the patient needs to go see someone, talk about what’s going on,” Newcomer said. “Primary care doctors need to ask the questions: What’s going on in their lives, why they can’t sleep, if this is something new. Then they can go from there.”