Sleep apnea is a serious condition in which a person’s breathing is interrupted during a period of sleep. If the sleep apnea is not treated, then they may stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep cycle. What makes sleep apnea especially dangerous is that it could be indicative of a severe underlying problem, most commonly a deprivation of adequate oxygen to the brain and body. The diagnosing and treatment of sleep apnea goes back to around half a century ago.
In 1965, sleep apnea was first described in medical literature, even though the condition itself was not recognized until the causes were identified. Preliminary reports were able to discover that those with sleep apnea had increased production of carbon dioxide (known as hypercapnia), decreased oxygen (hypoxemia), and congestive heart failure. All of these symptoms coincided with the description from an early 20th-century physician who coined the term “Pickwickian syndrome.” The name for this syndrome came from Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. The Pickwick Papers was a novel in which an overweight character named Joe exhibited similar symptoms that coincide with what a sleep apnea patient would have. Initially, the research was very narrow because body fat was the only suggestive cause that was being investigated.
However, obesity proved to be irrelevant. While increased body weight has proven to potentially contribute to sleep apnea, studies confirmed that it was not the ONLY cause. As the number of cases gradually grew over time with increasing awareness of the condition, research and creation of treatments started to ramp up in conjunction. The 70s saw a drastic increase in research, which scientists commonly testing the breathing cycle of dogs. Throat blockage was a highly suggestive cause of sleep apnea early on, and testing dogs were the only way for researchers to deduce how air could get past potential throat obstruction.
This lead to the development of specialized masks in the 70s and 80s that were created for dogs and humans to help to breathe during sleep. These masks were so successful that Colin Sullivan, the man behind the creation of these masks, wanted development of these masks to be spread across the country. Initially, people did not hear his pleas, but over time, CPAP became the signature treatment for sleep apnea.
The devices that reached prosperity were called continuous positive airway pressure devices, or CPAPs. Initially, the first line of devices was known for their loud noise, and they were later replaced with quieter alternatives.
Because of the roaring success of these lines of devices, this facilitated the creation of hundreds of specialized clinics for sleep apnea. There were a variety of sleep disorders that existed, but because the most common complaints were those of disorderly breathing, sleep apnea took precedence.
In modern times, the treatment of sleep apnea highly depends on adequate self-care. Patients are encouraged to lose excess weight and incorporate other lifestyle changes that would improve cardiovascular function. Again, while obesity is not the only or primary cause of sleep apnea, it is a risk factor. CPAP devices are also used to this day.
The fruits of research and creation of assisting devices have grown into the great development of combating this condition. On April 18th, 1981, Colin Sullivan published a paper on his use of CPAP devices to help patients with sleep apnea. Therefore, the American Apnea Sleep Association (AASA) officially recognized April 18th as Sleep Apnea Awareness Day in Colin Sullivan’s honor.