What is Pickwickian Syndrome?

Charles Dickens is best known for his characters Tiny Tim, Ebenezer Scrooge, the Artful Dodger, Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield. But perhaps his most influential character was Joe the “fat boy” in Dickens’s first novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club.

You say you’ve never heard of Joe or the novel? You’re not alone because it doesn’t get read every year at the holidays nor is it a regular part of school curriculum. However, the reason why Joe is an influential Dickens character is that the author’s description of his physical attributes prompted researchers to name a medical condition after him.

Take a Deep Breath

Dickens paints Joe the “fat boy” as a young man who is quite large and continually falls asleep regardless of where he is, what’s happening around him or even what he’s doing. It’s this combination of being severely overweight and having a propensity to doze off that led experts to identify the pickwickian syndrome, a variation of sleep apnea.

More commonly referred to today as obesity hypoventilation syndrome (OHS), the condition affects extremely obese individuals who exceed the medically recommended weight per height by 20 or more percent. Carrying that weight carries a lot of health complications, including heart disease, diabetes, and sleep apnea, which are interruptions in breathing while asleep. And when you do not sleep well night after night, the cumulative effects can further complicate your health.

OHS is more involved than just a few seconds of not breathing. Rather, one’s breathing becomes chronically compromised, with respiration falling below normal levels. In serious OHS cases, blood oxygen levels begin dropping and that can trigger the small vessels that feed oxygen into the lungs to constrict. This then increases pressure, which eventually can place stress on the heart.

Another consequence of chronically decreasing breathing ability is an gradual increase of carbon dioxide in the blood because your body is less capable of expelling it from the lungs efficiently.

CPAPOther OHS and sleep apnea side effects include:

• sleepwalking

• anxiety

• irritability

• lower sex drive

• memory loss

Feeling Better

Probably the most effective treatment for OHS is to lose weight so your body mass index (BMI) hits within the recommended ranges, and to manage that healthy weight for the long term. As the pounds drop off, your body should become more efficient at distributing oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide.

Or your physician may recommend you wear a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device while you sleep. This machine uses forced air to keep your airways open and prevent breathing interruptions.

In extreme cases, surgery may be prescribed. Children diagnosed with pediatric obesity hypoventilation syndrome may undergo adenotonsillectomy to remove tonsils and adenoids. Adults may be advised to pursue bariatric surgery to aid the weight-loss process.

Professional Guidance

Dickens may have created Joe the “fat boy” as an unexpected farce to keep readers interested, but there’s nothing farcical about breathing disorders induced by obesity. If you have concerns regarding your health, always consult your physician.