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Study finds sleep disorders in football players

A recent nationwide medical study found that some professional football players might suffer from a sleep disorder known as obstructive sleep apnea. The study, cited in the Jan. 23 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, suggests that the disorder may be present in young, physically fit men.

Sleep apnea is a potentially serious condition characterized by brief but numerous involuntary breathing pauses during sleep. If untreated, it can lead to life-threatening diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, and stroke. Sleep apnea is nearly as common as diabetes or asthma, affecting approximately 20 million people in the United States alone.

Bruce Hall, a clinical supervisor for the Sleep Center at Community General Hospital in Syracuse, says 75 percent of patients at the facility suffer from sleep apnea. About 80 people per month are treated for the condition at the center, which diagnoses and treats all sleep disorders.

"A lot of it goes unrecognized," Hall says. "Most of our sleep-apnea patients tend to snore. As the snoring gets more intense, it progresses into sleep apnea."

Hall says most sleep-apnea patients are overweight and have a bodymass index of over 25. However, Hall adds that it is also possible for a 90-pound female to suffer from the condition, which may be caused by the physical structures in the back of the throat.

Hall stresses that the condition is very treatable, and there is more than one option for treatment.

"A lot of people will wear a mask while they sleep, called nasal CPAP [continuous positive airway pressure]. That's the most popular treatment option," says Hall, who has worked at the center for almost 13 years. "Some people will wear [the mask] for the rest of their lives... As they lose weight, the sleep apnea tends to go away."

The center, which opened in 1987 and has eight employees, will recommend weight-loss options to its patients-some of whom will use the hospital's nutrition center. Hall says 25 percent of the patients travel from outside Syracuse, including Cortland, Ithaca, Oswego, Watertown, and some Cities in northern Pennsylvania.

SleepTech Consulting Group of Kinnelon, N.J., thought of the idea that inspired the nationwide study-which was conducted by Dr. Charles George, a professor of medicine at
the University of Western Ontario. ResMed Sleep Disordered Breathing Foundation sponsored the project.

Vyto Kab, co-managing director of SleepTech Consulting Group and a former National Football League tight end, says that the condition is not restricted to football players.

"It's not just about football players at all," he says. "What we had long suspected is that big people have trouble with sleep disorders. What surprised us was that... professional athletes [suffered because they are physically fit]."

Kab says that the average age of players tested was 25. He said "big" did not necessarily mean obese, as some of the players tested weighed more than 300 pounds but only had a 38-inch waist. He adds that "big" people usually have a 17-inch neck or larger and have a highbody-mass index.

"[This condition] is usually found in middle-aged [people]," says Kab, who played in the NFL for eight years with the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions. "There's a large group of people who are young and 'big'-but undiagnosed and unrecognized-who have a sleep disorder."

Sleep apnea has been associated with high blood pressure, inefficient metabolism, and immune deficiencies. Sleep apnea affects members of both genders, but is more common among men. People who have the condition, Kab says, can be an "NFL player, truck driver, or somebody who sits behind a desk."

Kab says typical signs for sleep disorders include snoring, feeling tired by 4 p.m. during a normal workday, an inability to concentrate, and the onset of fatigue. Due to the repeated sleep interruptions caused 'by apneic events, people with the condition do not obtain a full night of deep, restful sleep. Often the results are headaches, persistent sleepiness, and impaired' daytime performance.

Even if somebody is diagnosed with a sleep disorder, Kab says there is no reason to panic.

"If you deal with it early enough, you can avoid long-term effects that may lead to hypertension, which [in turn] leads to a stroke or heart attack," he says.

More than 300 NFL players from eight teams-the Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, Giants, Eagles, St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans, and Washington Redskins-were evaluated for the study. Overall, 14 percent of players tested had sleep apnea, while 34 percent of all linemen had the condition.

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