Since half of all adult men snore, it is likely that you or someone you know has lost sleep because of “sawing logs.” Perhaps even you have enraged your bed partner by making such sounds. Common snoring, however, may not be just annoying to the person listening; it could be keeping you from a night of well-rested sleep. In serious cases, snoring can be part of a bigger problem called sleep apnea.
Just Sawing Logs Or Serious?
By Brian Beise
WHAT IS SNORING?
Dr. Tareck Kadrie, medical director of Premier Sleep Diagnostic Center, explains, “Snoring is caused by the physical obstruction of the flow of air through the mouth and nose. The walls of the throat can vibrate during breathing, causing snoring. Air flow can be obstructed by obstructed nasal airways (i.e. deviated septum, allergies, nasal polyps), bulky throat tissue, long soft palate and uvula, and poor muscle tone in the throat and tongue.”
While you’re sleeping, the muscles in the back of the roof of your mouth (the soft palate), your tongue and your throat relax. If they are over-relaxed, they can block your airway. As you breathe, your soft palate and uvula vibrate and knock against the back of your throat. This causes the sounds you hear during snoring.
The tonsils and adenoids may also vibrate. The narrower the airway is, the more the tissue vibrates, and the louder the snoring is.
Dr. Daniel Smith, a specialist in pulmonary care at The Chattanooga Sleep Center, explains that although snoring may keep you from a fully restful sleep, the sound itself will only bother others.
“Your brain recognizes it’s you making the sounds,” he says, “whereas anyone else’s brain is constantly monitoring for foreign sounds.”
How is it treated?
For many, avoiding fatty foods and drinking less alcohol will make the greatest difference. Lose weight if you are overweight, as excess weight can cause throat tissue to become bulky and narrow airways. Quit smoking to reduce inflammation and swelling in the airway. Limit medicines and sedatives before bed. Sleep on your side and not your back. Nose strips, decongestants or nasal steroid sprays can also make breathing easier, helping to prevent snores and deepen sleep.
Some snorers have found that raising the head of their bed by four to six inches has helped reduce snoring and breathing trouble. Simply putting bricks under the legs of the bed and sleeping at a slight incline can help prevent the tongue from falling toward the back of the throat and becoming an obstruction for the airway.
If these treatments don’t work, you may be able to use a machine that helps you breathe while you sleep. This treatment is called continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. In rare cases, your doctor may suggest surgery to open your airway. CPAP and surgery are most common among those suffering from sleep apnea.
Sleep Apnea Is Serious
More than just a nighttime annoyance, chronic snoring is often a symptom and sign of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a common disorder in which the sleeper has one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while asleep. Obstruction of the airway keeps people with sleep apnea from sinking into full sleep. Rather, they sleep lightly, keeping their throat muscles flexed, struggling to breathe evenly.
In addition to inhibiting good rest, insufficient breath causes blood oxygen levels to drop, raising the person’s heart rate and blood pressure. Sleep apnea can lead to serious health problems including heart disease, sexual dysfunction and depression. The stress of lowering oxygen levels in the blood leads to the production of adrenalin, which increases blood sugar, eventually putting the sleeper at risk for diabetes.
Call your doctor if you or your bed partner snores loudly and heavily; experiences excessive daytime sleepiness; falls asleep at inappropriate times, such as when talking or while eating; stops breathing, gasps, or chokes during sleep. These are indicators of sleep apnea.
Diagnosing Sleep Apnea
Dr. Anuj Chandra, a board certified sleep medicine specialist and director of the Advanced Center for Sleep Disorders, says that sleep apnea is often mistaken for other, better known diseases. When a patient presents with disturbed sleep, “the number one misdiagnosis with sleep apnea,” says Dr. Chandra, “is depression.” In those cases a doctor believes the patient might be depressed, and prescribes them antidepressants, which, in the case of sleep apnea sufferers, will do no good. In other cases, says Dr. Chandra, a patient complains of needing the restroom four times a night, and the doctor treats him for an enlarged prostate, when in fact the cause is sleep apnea, or what Dr. Chandra calls sleep disordered breathing.
Treating Sleep Apnea
Many of the treatments for mild sleep apnea are the same for common snoring. CPAP is a very common treatment for sleep apnea. “This machine delivers forced air through a tube and mask,” says Dr. Kadrie. “That far and away is the most common treatment for sleep apnea. For people with milder sleep apnea, there are also some oral appliances or dental devices that can help eliminate it.”
There are also surgical options in which the uvula is removed or shortened and tonsils are taken out, if present. These procedures permanently correct obstructions of the airway, whereas CPAP simply suppresses them with non-invasive positive air flow.
“Snoring itself does not constitute sleep apnea,” says Dr. Kadrie, “but the cardinal symptoms are chronic snoring, nonrefreshing sleep and daytime sleepiness.” Dr. Chandra recommends anyone who feels they might have chronic snoring or sleep apnea should take the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, a free, quick and simple way to find out if you should consult a doctor about your fatigue.
Dr. Smith says that your bed partner’s complaints of snoring should merit investigation. “We’ll recommend a sleep study,” says Dr. Smith; “that’s the best way to evaluate those complaints and figure out whether there’s anything significant enough that treatment might be needed.” If you are among the millions of Americans affected by chronic snoring, make it a priority to quiet the “sawing logs” and get checked out by a doctor – it could be more serious than you think.