by Dr. Joseph J. Berke, M.D., Ph.D.
Snoring can be a real problem. Not only is it embarrassing for the person exhibiting the habit. It can also be frustrating for the spouse or partner who is trying desperately to sleep. Many people reach over and wake their partner up telling them to stop snoring. This advice is naïve at best since snoring is not a voluntary sleep pattern. It can actually be a symptom of sleep apnea, a very serious problem.
Many people are unfamiliar with the term sleep apnea. The more common term for obstructive sleep apnea syndrome, sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that demonstrates itself by several episodes of interrupted breathing during sleep.
If someone does not suffer from sleep apnea, their airway remains open during sleep since the muscles in the upper part of the throat relax during sleep to ensure that air flows through the lungs. However, individuals suffering from sleep apnea may have a more narrow air passage. When they sleep, relaxing the muscles can cause that narrow passage to close rather than open. This means air can't get into the lungs. This equates to loud snoring and breathing. In extreme cases, air is completely blocked from the lungs.
Patients suffering from sleep apnea can stop breathing for a long period of time. This time differs, but it is often greater than ten seconds. A partner may notice them snoring then snorting and gasping for breath. Since sleep apnea causes a pause in breathing, these patients are actually making attempts to breathe. Each time this occurs, they move to a different, lighter, stage of sleep. This is, of course, a less than ideal night's rest, and many sleep apnea patients report daytime drowsiness.
Sleep apnea can affect people of all ages and sizes, but the highest affected percent of the population seems to be elderly, obese men. There are other issues that can contribute to a person's likelihood of having sleep apnea. Some of these factors include nasal obstruction, strange shaped jaws and palates, large tongues, tiny airways, etc. If you take sleeping pills or drink alcoholic beverages before going to bed, you can also be prone to sleep apnea episodes.
How do you know if you have sleep apnea? Talk to your partner. Sleep apnea doesn't just mean snoring. It means snoring at a normal pace then progressively becoming louder. The snoring then stops to be interrupted by silence when no breathing is taking place. Then, the person begins snorting or gasping or wheezing as the snoring returns.
If you think you suffer from sleep apnea, realize this is a very serious problem and talk to your doctor about it. Since extreme cases of sleep apnea can actually lead to pulmonary hypertension or heart failure, it is very important to diagnose sleep apnea.
Is there anything you can do to avoid sleep apnea? No, but there are things you can do to lessen your chances of having sleep apnea episodes. You should refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages or taking sleeping pills near bedtime. You should not eat right before bedtime, and you can purchase a sleep apnea or snore pillow designed to promote proper neck and spine alignment, lessening your chances of snoring.
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