Aparajitha Verma, M.D., neurologist and medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Houston Methodist Hospital’s Neurological Institute, reviews a patient’s sleep test readings with Henry Terrell, lab manager. (Photo courtesy of Methodist Hospital)
For 18 years, Tammy Gilts struggled every night to fall asleep, staring into the empty space of a darkened bedroom for hours, praying for peaceful slumber. After battling sleepless nights for five years, Gilts reluctantly began to take sleeping pills.
Only after a long odyssey that included visiting multiple doctors over nearly two decades, Gilts finally found relief with Aparajitha Verma, M.D., a neurologist and medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Houston Methodist Hospital’s Neurological Institute.
“When I turned 40, I got migraines, insomnia, and by the time I was 45, I was so tired I was worried I would have a car wreck with the kids,” said Gilts.
Gilts, 58, is the wife of the Rev. Kip Gilts, the South District Superintendent of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, and she also is part of a growing number of Americans who have difficulty sleeping.
An estimated 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders or deprivation, according to the most recent study released by the Centers for Disease Control in 2013. Lack of sleep not only can impair daily functioning, but also is tied to increased risk for worsening a broad range of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and immune system disorders, research has shown.
The growing need for sleep treatment has led many medical institutions to create sleep disorder centers, like the one at Houston Methodist Hospital.
“Sleep disorders are quite common, and under recognized, under diagnosed and under treated,” said Verma. “Insomnia (the inability to fall asleep or to stay asleep) is the most prevalent sleep disorder in the world.”
Yet, due to common misperceptions of sleep problems, they are often mistreated, a serious problem because of their link to the progression of diseases. While many people may think insomnia is related to aging, it has myriad causes, and the Sleep Disorders Center treats patients ranging in age from 13 years old to more than 50 years of age.
“No one is immune to sleep disorders,” said Verma. “They occur at any age.” Aging, however, can be a factor in the onset of sleeping disturbances, she said.
Like Gilts, many people suffering from insomnia use sleeping pills as an aid, which in turn, can cause more problems. Gilts said she used them for 13 years, until she was treated at the sleep center in November of 2012.
Verma tackled unraveling the cause of Gilts’ sleeplessness by conducting a battery of tests to determine the cause.
“We go through a check list: family history, memory, both short term and long term, medications, use of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol. The patient was also seen by sleep specialists from other fields of medicine as a part of the diagnostic effort.
The field of sleep medicine is multi-disciplinary and includes internal medicine, pulmonology, neurology and pain specialists and others, she said.
After Gilts’ medical history had been reviewed, Gilts checked in for several overnight stays at the 10-bed sleep center. Even though it was a hospital setting, Gilts said she was not intimidated by the task of falling asleep in the sleep center, while hooked up to monitors.
“The sleep center is set up to be very homey and is more like a hotel than a hospital. The bed is not a hospital bed,” said Gilts. A sleep technician placed sensors on Gilts’ head, arms and chest, abdomen, nose and mouth, and legs. Additionally, a video recording established the sleeping pattern.
The first night at the sleep center is used to diagnose a patient, while the second night is used to determine the treatment required, Verma said.
Gilts was diagnosed with insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea. The treatment Verma prescribed for Gilts was the use of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), a machine that helps to keep airways open during sleep by applying mild pressure to airways.
For Gilts, it has made all the difference in the world. Now she can sleep, and she doesn’t need medication to help her sleep.
“I should have gone to the sleep center way sooner than I did,” said Gilts. “The last time I saw Dr. Verma, I tapped her on the shoulder and said ‘Thank you so much for helping me to have a better life.’”