Music for a sound sleep

  • Article by: MARISA HELMS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 7, 2012 - 9:05 AM

Playing a centuries-old instrument, the didgeridoo, could provide a breath of fresh air for people struggling with sleep problems.

Michael Gardos Reid hasn't gotten a decent night's sleep since 1999.

For the 59-year-old Minneapolis man who suffers from obstructive sleep apnea, every night is the same: When he falls asleep, his tongue and throat muscles relax so much that his airway essentially collapses, cutting off oxygen. After several seconds, he wakes, startled and choking, his body tense with adrenaline.

"It's like a four-alarm fire for your cardiovascular system," says Dr. Kathy Gromer, a sleep specialist with the Minnesota Sleep Institute. "When it happens over and over, you can develop a lifetime of health problems. It's incredibly stressful on the heart to do this all night, every night, for years."

Unlike many of the estimated 20 million Americans who have sleep apnea, Gardos Reid isn't using the most common treatment -- being hooked up to a CPAP machine, which pumps air through the nose, at night.

Instead, he wears a nighttime mouth guard, and he's spent the past year learning to play an ancient Australian instrument -- a simple, 6-foot-long wooden trumpet called a didgeridoo.

"I'm a person who likes to be involved with my health care, so here is something I can do," he said. "I like it," he said of the didgeridoo, which produces a distinctive foghorn-like sound. "It seems to be helping."

'Whatever works'

Interest in using the didgeridoo (pronounced DID-jury-doo) to lessen the effects of snoring, apnea and other sleep ailments has been growing since 2006.

That's when the BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal) published a Swiss study showing that playing the obscure instrument decreased snoring and daytime sleepiness. The study tested the hypothesis that playing the didgeridoo strengthens the muscles in the back of the throat and tones the airway, which prevents it from collapsing during sleep. The study concluded that didgeridoo playing is an "effective treatment alternative" for moderate sleep apnea.

The BMJ article prompted a flurry of media attention, with the unwieldy instrument being trotted out on medical talk shows such as "The Doctors" and "Dr. Oz." The Mayo Clinic even included didgeridoo playing as a treatment for snoring in its 2010 "Home Remedies" book.

While playing an exotic aboriginal instrument to treat sleep apnea is still considered very alternative, local sleep experts haven't written it off.

"It works in mild to moderate cases, but the patient has to be dedicated to practicing it and learning it," said Mary McKinley, director of the Northwind Lung Specialists and Sleep Center in Coon Rapids. However, McKinley says the traditional treatment has drawbacks, as well.

"CPAP can be a bulky, cumbersome device, and if patients don't wear it, it doesn't work," she said. "So, if we can find something that the patient will participate in, great. Whatever works."

Dr. Eric J. Olson, co-director of the Mayo Clinic's Center for Sleep Medicine in Rochester, agrees, at least in part.

"There's something there," he said. "It is biologically plausible that doing things to your throat might have some effect."

But like other sleep specialists, Olson said he'd like to see more, larger-scale studies about the effectiveness of the didgeridoo before he would be comfortable recommending it along with more traditional treatment options, such as CPAP, surgery or mouth guards.

"It's not like, 'Oh, my gosh, we've been neglecting this as therapy,'" said Olson. "It's an interesting idea, nonetheless."

Music for medicine

Steve Sklar of Minneapolis, who plays and teaches the didgeridoo, also thought it was an interesting idea. But it wasn't one he jumped on right away.

"A lot of players and teachers were reluctant to act on it because we all knew so-and-so who plays the didge, but snores like a train," he said.

Still Sklar, who also is an expert Tuvan throat singer and is well schooled in the mechanics of the throat, believes playing the didgeridoo helped him overcome his sleep apnea. So he started accepting patient referrals from the Northwind sleep clinic. Earlier this year, Sklar created an online referral service (www.sleepapneadidgeridoo.com) to connect people seeking didgeridoo lessons with teachers.

While he advocates the didgeridoo as a weapon in the arsenal to treat apnea, he makes it clear that his expertise is musical, not medical.

"I tell patients that I used to have sleep apnea, and that I do think some of them could get away from ultimately using these devices, like the CPAP," said Sklar. "But I also tell them to always follow the advice of their doctors."

Sklar currently has about a dozen students who are learning the didgeridoo to combat sleep problems. Gardos Reid is one of them.

He pays rapt attention when Sklar demonstrates the various mouth shapes and breathing techniques. In addition to the lessons, Gardos Reid said he practices playing didgeridoo for about 30 minutes, five times week.

He hopes that someday he will abandon the mouth guard he still wears and be able to play his way to one of the things he most wants: sleep.

Marisa Helms is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

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