According to the National Sleep Foundation, about 90 million adults in the United States snore, which is almost 45% of all adults. Clearly, snoring is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored.
It is difficult to imagine just what causes the variety of unusual and sometimes incredibly loud sounds that occur when a person snores. When we fall into a deep sleep, our muscles relax—including those in our upper airways such as the mouth, tongue and throat. This muscle relaxation can narrow or even obstruct the airway, creating a forceful airflow. This, in turn, causes tissue vibration—producing the sound of snoring. The narrower the obstruction, the louder the snore.
There is a strong possibility that even if you did not snore as a younger adult, as your muscles increasingly relax during the aging process you likely will begin to snore. Occasional snoring is not a serious concern. However, habitual snoring could have health implications. Beyond the natural aging process, there are other factors that can cause snoring, including:
- Consuming alcohol in the evening or taking a muscle relaxant before bedtime.
- Nasal problems, such as a deviated septum or chronic nasal congestion. A deviated septum occurs when the thin wall separating our nostrils is crooked or off-center, causing reduced airflow through one of the two nasal passages.
- Other anatomical abnormalities. A low, thick soft palate, enlarged tonsils or adenoids, and a large uvula are all tissues that when too large can obstruct airways.
- Obesity. Fatty tissue around the jaw and throat can cause tissues to collapse into the throat, obstructing the airway.
- Sleep apnea. When this occurs, people actually stop breathing for intermittent, short periods.
In many cases, snoring actually awakens the snorer, causing disruptive sleep patterns. This can result in a variety of complications in daily living. The most obvious is daytime sleepiness, which can have serious implications on mood, and how we function and concentrate.
Relationships may also suffer if snoring is making it difficult for a partner to sleep. Sometimes a change as simple as sleeping on your stomach can help. Certainly, not drinking alcoholic beverages within a few hours before bedtime could also be a simple solution. Other more complex factors, such as the anatomy of your throat or nasal problems can be explored further with a visit to our office.
One of the most serious causes for snoring is sleep apnea, a disorder affecting nearly half of people who snore. Breathing is interrupted while you slumber—in fact, you actually stop breathing sometimes for 10 seconds or more. Sleep apnea is distinguished by snoring followed by brief silence and then a loud intake of air. This can happen numerous times during the night. Sleep apnea can cause the percentage of oxygen in our body’s circulation to drop significantly, sometimes to dangerously low levels. As a result, our lungs work harder trying to compensate for an obstructed airway, and the heart must work harder to support the lungs’ efforts.
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form, whereby the soft tissue in the back of the mouth relaxes to the extent that the airway is blocked. Central sleep apnea is caused by irregularities in the normal signals our brain sends out to control breathing. Many people may not realize they have sleep apnea unless it is observed by someone who watches them sleep. To definitively diagnose sleep apnea, patients undergo a sleep study conducted in a controlled setting in which they are observed overnight. Breathing, brain activity and heart rhythms are monitored.
If diagnosed, sleep apnea can be addressed with a variety of treatments specific to a patient’s individual medical history. Treatment can vary from special pillows designed to prevent sleeping on one’s back or even devices worn to keep the airway open during sleep. In some cases a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine may be recommended. A CPAP machine blows pressurized air into a mask worn by the patient when sleeping. It is important to note that there is no general treatment—the protocol depends on an individual’s personal medical history.
People who are chronic snorers are at an increased risk for hypertension, diabetes, heart failure and stroke. Also, researchers have found a strong link between loud snoring and heart disease. Although sporadic snoring may be a nuisance, keep in mind that if it is chronic, it could be an audible clue for an underlying health issue. For many diseases or disorders, we are not always as fortunate to have such an obvious symptom to remind us to seek medical advice.