To look at me, you would’ve thought I had it all — happily married mother of two, pretty home in a leafy neighborhood, holding down a demanding job. But the truth is, I was keeping a secret — the nagging fear that I was seriously ill, or worse, the possibility I was losing my marbles.
For longer than I could remember, I had been struggling to get through the days, propped up on caffeine, sugar and old-school work ethic. I was exhausted all the time. I suffered strange bouts of pain. Periodically, I ventured a visit to the doctor with complaints of throbbing legs, aching muscles and crushing fatigue.
Passed from specialist to specialist, I would mention my miserable nights if the subject was raised — my norm was three hours of sleep at best. But I was afraid to disclose the full extent of my difficulties: increasing problems with short-term memory, trouble maintaining my concentration and a growing list of phobias that undermined my sense of self.
“It’s all in your head,” my husband insisted.
Apparently, the doctors agreed, as I was tested for a variety of diseases and the answer was always the same — good news! I was fine, they said. Tired? Sure. What working mother with a traveling spouse wouldn’t be pooped with a busy schedule?
I was told to take a vacation. I was offered antidepressants. I was summarily dismissed by a series of physicians until one, finally, put it all together.
I can still hear his voice: “It’s just a night in the hospital. A sleep study. And if I’m right, your life is going to change — for the better.”
As for polysomnography — the proper term for this diagnostic testing — I arrived at the hospital in the evening, settled into a simply furnished room and noted the video camera aimed at the bed. There was a private bath where I changed into my PJs, and when I came out, a technician began prepping me for the night.
By the time she was finished, there were electrodes attached to the top and back of my head, behind my ears and on my brow, above the right eye and below the left, on either side of my chin, several more on the legs and chest, along with other belts and apparatus. I was hooked up to a portable control box of sorts, and when I finally dropped off to sleep — not easy, when all wired up — technicians were able to monitor brain waves, respiration, heartbeat and limb movement.
When I next saw the doctor we had our answer. Three little words: Restless Legs Syndrome.
Restless Legs Syndrome appears in mild, moderate and severe forms, and affects some 10% of the U.S. population. It’s frequently characterized by uncomfortable sensations or pain in the legs, and limb movement which causes disrupted sleep.
My diagnosis came in 2000, before hopping on the Internet for research was standard fare. Once we knew where we stood, addressing my health issues became straightforward. As it turns out, treatment is simple, combining a tiny dosage of medication, attention to good nutrition, regular walking and — to the extent it’s possible — managing stress.
We talk a good game in this country when it comes to the importance of getting our rest, yet sleep disorders remain a challenge to diagnose. Part of this is our own doing, as we claim bragging rights for pulling all-nighters and hesitate to admit when we run out of steam. We take fatigue as a given and view sleep issues as a symptom rather than an underlying cause of serious health problems.
So we wind up hitting our 40s and 50s before a physician finally suggests a polysomnogram.
But there are other reasons for delayed diagnosis. As sleep specialist Dr. Ralph Pasqualy explains:
“… Many people that have [sleep disorders] are actually unaware that they have a sleep disorder as the main problem …. If your sleep is disturbed you won’t know it, other than that you feel poorly and might imagine it’s a medical illness, stress, a psychological problem … “
Fortunately, we’ve come a long way in recent years. We can hardly pick up a periodical or turn the virtual page without a report on the importance of sleep. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) refers to our “public health epidemic,” citing sleep deprivation as contributing to “motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational errors."
This heightened awareness should encourage us to educate ourselves, and consider sleep’s impacts on daytime functioning and long-term health.
As for me, I have my happy ending. As I began to sleep, chronic fatigue loosened its grip, muscle and joint pain all but disappeared, aching in my legs lessened, cognitive impairments evaporated and phobias faded.
From time to time, I experience a period of recurrent waking, but aware of the cause, I refocus on exercise and diet to restore my sleep to acceptable levels. For me, this means six hours a night, occasionally seven. Not only do I reap the obvious benefits of more rest, but my doctor was right. My life changed — very much for the better.