A reader writes:
I've been reading your posts about sleep apnea with interest. A few years ago, I too had terrible breathing problems. If I laid on my back, my airway would be gradually occluded until I strangled myself and woke up with a panicked start.
Three years ago, I began practicing yoga, which has gradually re-aligned my head, neck and shoulders. I know "spine alignment" sounds like a bunch of hippy-dippy bullshit, but take it from this red-blooded (usually bearded!) rationalist: it really does make a difference.
Standing or lying with relaxed and lengthened neck/shoulders feels approximately like fastening a breathe-right strip onto my nose. It's that dramatic. I look at the photo another reader sent in and I could be looking at my posture three years ago. Look at the convexity of his back: when he lies down that same curve will persist, and lift the base of his neck off the bed, which tilts his head back, which closes off his airway.
I'd suggest that anyone with apnea, snoring or breathing problems try some kind of postural remedies before, or in addition to technological or surgical interventions. Yoga, Alexander Technique, and Feldenkrais are all good. (I've never had chiropractic treatment, but that might help too.) The thing is, all those approaches take time and work; you have to change the physical habits of a lifetime. It's not easy, but for me it's made a big difference.
A couple of years ago, I set up home with a new partner, and she asked me if I realized how much I snored, and how often I had sleep apnea. So I tried the easy things - the moulded plastic mouthpiece, the tennis ball sewn into the back of my t-shirt, etc. Nothing helped. My doctor said that a CPAP might help, but at my age (60) and weight, and with my deviated septum, I would probably need surgery.
And then I realized something: I never snore on planes. I was doing a lot of long-haul flying - I racked up 6 trips to China last year - and I could sleep without difficulty in the coach-class seats on the plane.
So I tried sleeping sitting up. I tried various chairs, and it definitely helped, but it was hard to get the angle right. So I broke down and spent a $1,000 on a power-operated "Zero-G" chair. At the right angle, my sleep apnea disappeared. I still snore occasionally - just a mild buzz, according to my partner - but I sleep much better and awake more refreshed than I have for many years.
I was diagnosed with sleep apnea and had a CPAP with only moderate success. I found that if I also used Afrin, I slept MUCH better. Prolonged use of Afrin is widely thought to be a bad idea, but it did convince me that my breathing problems were associated with somewhat restricted airways (this is often the case, but not with everyone.)
I told my sleep-ologist about the Afrin. He sent me to an Ear Nose and Throat specialist. After a thorough exam, he prescribed an alternative inhalant to Afrin, fluticasone propitionate. This provides the benefits of Afrin, presumably without the side affects. Used once a day, this has a greater net effect for me than the CPAP.
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