Snoring is often a symptom of a more serious condition known as sleep apnea. This sleeping disorder is characterized by continuous interruptions in breathing throughout the night. These breathing gaps can occur hundreds of times a night, robbing the individual of restorative sleep and increasing the risk of serious complications such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Symptoms & Causes
It is estimated that up to 90% of individuals with sleep apnea are unaware of their condition. Ironically, they may consider themselves to be good sleepers, since they are often able to fall asleep quickly, under any circumstances. But this is not normal.
Sleep apnea is usually accompanied by chronic, noisy snoring. The individual often gasps for breath or chokes during the night, but usually sleeps through such incidents without waking up. This results in a poor night’s sleep, time and again. Symptoms include daytime exhaustion and sleepiness, poor memory and concentration, dry mouth, sore throat and morning headache. The most common type of sleep apnea, obstructive, occurs when the tongue and throat tissues relax during sleep, drooping enough to block the airway. This can be caused by bulky throat tissue, a large soft palate or uvula, a small jaw or enlarged adenoids or tonsils. Those at greatest risk are middle-aged males who are overweight, with thick necks.
Central sleep apnea – a less common type – is triggered by completely different circumstances, and a result of the brain’s inability to properly control breathing during sleep. It’s much more rare than obstructive sleep apnea.
Treating Sleep Apnea
The most common and effective treatment method for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). A mask is worn over the nose, and a machine delivers a steady pressure of air just strong enough to keep the airway open and allow for normal breathing and sleeping. It should be noted this does not cure sleep apnea, but offers a proven method of managing the symptoms.
Some people cannot tolerate the mask and turn to other treatment methods. An oral appliance or mouth guard, custom fitted by a dentist, is a good solution for those with less-severe cases of sleep apnea. A number of surgical procedures may help, but their efficacy varies.
Lifestyle changes can help. Losing weight often reduces the severity of your symptoms; just a 10% drop can make a big difference. Other tips include eliminating alcohol (particularly before bedtime), quitting smoking, and sleeping on your side instead of back.