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Snoring and Sleep Apnea

Though snoring is often pictured during cartoons and situation comedies as a humorous event, the truth is that beyond the first few minutes, there is nothing funny about it. Snoring can be an annoyance that has an impact on the relationship between sleep partners, and it can be a signal of a much more serious problem that requires medical attention.  One way or another, it is a signal that something is not working the way that it’s supposed to.When everything is going perfectly, sleep results in our bodies relaxing. All of the processes that keep us alive continue, but the muscles that support it let go a bit, and this includes our airway. In a perfect scenario when the airway relaxes it narrows but air is still able to flow through. Introduce any kind of obstruction and the sound struggling to pass through begins to make a sound, and as the obstruction grows into a blockage, the sound becomes a warning signal of a condition known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) that can have potentially fatal consequences.

 Simple Snoring

Almost half of us snore, even though some of us don’t want to admit it. Snoring is more common in men than in women, at least until menopause. After women’s hormone levels change, their snoring increases. Snoring happens when we go to sleep and our throat muscles lose their tension. If there is too much interference for the air, our bodies create the familiar vibrating sound. There are a number of reasons why snoring can occur. These include aging, obesity, congestion, physical anomalies that obstruct the air’s free flow, and depressive substances such as drugs or alcohol.

Aging’s impact comes with reduced muscle tone, which allows our throats and tongues to become floppy.  Being overweight, especially if we are obese, adds fat to the interiors of our necks and literally pushes the airway closed. Congestion from a cold or allergy, or even from sleeping in a room that lacks humidity, can cause snoring. Having a broken nose, or tonsils that are too large, or any other overgrowth of tissue can interfere with the smooth flow of air, and anything with a sedative effect is likely to relax the muscles too much, leading to snoring.

Snoring should be addressed if only because it can disturb your partner and have an impact on your relationship. But it is also important to investigate the cause of chronic snoring, as it can be indicative of a problem that is more serious than simple noisemaking. This problem is called obstructive sleep apnea, and it has impacted the lives of nearly twenty million American adults.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Sleep Apnea can be a serious sleep disorder that deserves treatment.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a condition that mimics snoring in that during sleep the airway narrows. But in apnea, the airway has become so small that the body lacks for oxygen.  The inhalations take in less and less air and the exhalations that would release carbon dioxide become less productive as well. Eventually the body wakes itself up by and gasps for the oxygen that it needs and to release the carbon dioxide. After that abrupt awakening, the apnea victim falls asleep again, but the same process repeats itself throughout the night. This is why the symptoms of apnea are always highlighted by daytime sleepiness and fatigue. Not only is the patient not getting the sleep that they need, but they are also taxing the heart and cardiovascular system by making it work so hard to take in the oxygen it needs at night.

Apnea Risk Factors

Most people who suffer from apnea are not aware that they are going through this dangerous cycle. Sometimes their symptoms are reported by those who share a bedroom with them, and sometimes the condition is discovered because they are seeking treatment for their fatigue. There are certain commonalities that are found in apnea sufferers, which include the following:

  •  Extremely loud snoring
  • Obesity characterized by a large neck
  • Hypertension and cardiovascular problems
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Confusion or memory problems
  • Weight gain
  • Diabetes
  • Headaches or depression

People who exhibit several of these symptoms should see a sleep specialist, as untreated apnea can lead to heart attack, stroke, and other potentially life-threatening health events.

Treating Snoring and Apnea

When treating snoring, the most important consideration is determining the cause of the problem. If the noise is being caused by a nasal passage that is physically too narrow, then using a simple nasal strip that pulls the airways open a bit wider can be all that is needed. In other cases, lifestyle changes such as losing weight or not drinking alcohol at night can stop the problem. Likewise, for back snorers simply sleeping with a tennis or golf ball can prevent the problem entirely, and other cases can be helped by humidifiers, nasal steroid sprays or dental devices that position your jaw and tongue properly so that they don’t collapse into the airway.

In more severe cases of snoring, surgical options may be more appropriate, and these same choices can also work in some cases of apnea. Surgery can remove or reshape the uvula, can remove the tonsils or adenoids, or place implants into the soft palate to stiffen it and keep it from collapsing and blocking the airway.  For many, the surgery commonly known as a “nose job” can straighten a deviated septum and eliminate the snoring entirely.

Treating Obstructive Sleep Apnea 

In most cases, surgery is not the most effective treatment for OSA. Instead, sleep specialists have found that the use of noninvasive therapies has been most helpful, particularly Positive Airway Pressure (PAP) or CPAP, both of which provide a constant flow of air pressure through a mask device -  this prevents the airway from collapsing both when the patient is inhaling and exhaling.  Again, dental devices can be very helpful, and when a single treatment approach is not working adequately physicians have found that supplementing PAP with oxygen or antidepressants generally eliminates the problem.

If you are experiencing daytime sleepiness and you have been told that you snore, it is essential that you consult with a sleep specialist to make sure that your condition is properly diagnosed and treated.

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