I’m an engineer at heart (and by formal training), so I know the credo:

  1. There’s only so long I’m going to let a problem bother me before I will try to fix it.
  2. When I set my mind to it, I will damn well fix it.
  3. An inelegant solution beats no solution. Let them laugh, you still solved the problem.

My obstructive sleep apnea situation provides me with generous time in the wee hours for my engineering brain to tinker with ways to remain unconscious during apnea events. (The story of why a long-term treatment is taking so long is another blog post, but it’s the usual thing: our health system is not very good at some things, and delivering me a CPAP machine quickly is one of them.)

My problem in sleeping through apnea events in the early AM is that I’m a very light sleeper then. Every. Single. One. Wakes. Me. Up. Consciously. I can count them. Yes, 9 per hour (as verified in the sleep lab) seems just about right. The first one comes just moments after I drift off. My sleep is way too light to get through it.

But, I reasoned, if I could get through that first one, I’d be able to stay unconscious a lot longer, through many subsequent ones. How to do this?

There are drugs (see my prior posts), but not ones I want to take every day. Last night I was Ambien free.

Then there are an assortment of mechanical solutions, all of which are aimed at keeping the tongue out of the airway. I have so much time to experiment with these, including last night between 2:30-6AM.

I tried biting my tongue to hold it outward. Yes, that’s dumb, but one gets desperate. It didn’t work. I unbite it as soon as I fall asleep. Plus it’s very drooly, which also wakes me.

I tried sleeping on my stomach, to maximize the gravitational pull on my tongue mouth-outward. To my surprise, I can do this. It didn’t help. I drift off, staking a claim on sleep. Mean Mr. Apnea snatches it away.

I tried thrusting out my lower jaw as is achieved by mandibular advancement devices. Nope. Can’t sustain it while entering sleep. Also drooly.

I tried all manner of pillow architecture. Didn’t do a damn thing.

After all this, at 4:30AM last night, I’m thinking, thinking, thinking. There has to be a way.

Suction. I can create a partial vacuum in my mouth, easily. I bet you can too. In part it’s how you scratch your hard pallet with your tongue or click your tongue against it. Once initiated, the tongue can be pinned to the roof of the mouth, where the suction is not that hard to sustain for many minutes. All I had to do was keep the tongue suctioned up there long enough to get through the first apnea event and, voila, I entered sufficiently deep sleep that I was unconscious from 4:30-6AM, during which time, no doubt, I experienced about 15 more.

Engineering wins.


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