Patient reporting and reviews are a strong component of medical research. John Brugger is a sleep apnea patient, and like 20 million other Americans, he had trouble sleeping because of snoring, tossing and turning, and struggling to breathe at night. The sleep disturbances left him completely exhausted the following day and put him at higher risk of heart disease, car accidents, and stroke.
After years of struggle, Mr. Brugger finally went to see his doctor, who prescribed a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. This device pushes air through a mask while the individual sleeps. It helps keep the throat and airways open.
After a few tries, Brugger gave up, which is not uncommon. More than half of the patients who receive CPAP stop using it shortly after trying the device. Most people claim they do not like the weight or the sound of the machine. In Mr. Brugger’s case, he states he had a tough time falling asleep with it on his face because it was too bulky.
As part of a study out of National Jewish Health in Denver, Mr. Brugger watched a disturbing video of himself at night without the CPAP machine. Watching himself struggling to breathe while sleeping made him change his mind about using the machine. Now, he claims he cannot sleep without the device.
This video was part of the research led by Dr. Mark Aloia at NJH. Dr. Aloia presented preliminary findings at the annual Associated Professional Sleep Society meeting.
Initially, scientists tried showing study participants videos of other people struggling to breathe without their CPAP mask. There was not much relatability, however. Responses were usually something like ‘wow, that’s bad,’ but many of them would internalize a comment like ‘but I’m not that bad.’ Finally, Dr. Aloia and his team tried showing participants videos of themselves trying to sleep without the mask and see if that made a difference in their response.
The effect and response were dramatically different. Those who witnessed their breathing struggles and gasps during sleep used their CPAP machines an average of three hours more each night than those who did not watch any videos. Furthermore, those who saw their video used the CPAP mask an average of two-and-a-half hours more than people who saw videos of other people struggling to breathe while sleeping. Essentially, researchers created a sense of urgency that people took personally, which led to them changing their behavior.
Mr. Brugger noted that this was one of the most powerful moments in his life. He watched himself writhe and periodically gasp for air throughout the night. He was moved to tears as he watched himself basically drown in his sleep, which made him more motivated and determined to fix the issue.
That was the primary objective of this research. For the most part, you cannot recognize or truly notice sleep apnea in yourself. You’re asleep, so you’re completely unaware of the danger your body is in until you watch your sleep study video and put things into personal perspective.
Sleep apnea can lead to serious health concerns if left untreated, including conditions like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, depression, and some types of cancer. It puts individuals at a higher risk of automobile accidents or workplace injuries because of the daytime exhaustion.
Dr. Aloia and his team were determined to help patients see the urgency of their condition. The most shocking part of the research was how emotional participants became when they saw their video. John Brugger was one of the people who responded with deep emotional distress; however, it led to him wearing his CPAP machine ever since the day he saw the video. It changed his life to have that personal experience.
This research opens the door to finding innovative ways to approach sleep disorders with patients. Personalized medicine is on the rise, and this brings us one step closer to discovering new interventions to improve the health of a large population.