Many people snore. Do all snorers (people who snore) also suffer from sleep apnea? Is snoring harmful to health? Is sleep apnea harmful to health? What are the signs and symptoms of someone who has sleep apnea? How is sleep apnea diagnosed and treated? These and other questions shall be discussed in this blog post and the one that follows.
SNORING: simply defined snoring is noisy breathing which occurs when a person is sleeping. It is a very common condition. Many people snore when they fall asleep on their backs (supine position). Some snore softly, others snore loudly disturbing the sleep of their bed partner. Hence snoring can be of mild, moderate and severe intensity. A common cause of snoring is obstruction to the flow of air in the nose. Deviated nasal septum with or without turbinate hypertrophy is a common cause of snoring. Snoring at times can also occur when there is obstruction to airflow in the upper part of the throat. In these cases, the soft palate vibrates giving rise to the snoring sound. When snoring occurs on its own it is referred to as simple snoring.
Simple snoring is not considered to be harmful to the health of the snorer. Hence simple snoring does not need to be treated in all cases. Simple snoring though disturbs the sleep of the bed partner. It may be so loud that the bedpartner is forced to sleep in a separate room! At times patients snore so loudly that their snoring wakes them up! In these cases snoring may warrant treatment.
TREATMENT FOR SIMPLE SNORING: There are many treatment options for simple snoring. These include simple interventions such as weight loss (we are more likely to snore as we put on weight so weight loss frequently alleviates snoring), sleeping on the side (lateral position) rather than on the back (supine position) also helps. Snoring occurs most commonly when one sleeps on his/her back. Sleeping on the side with the head elevated may at times alleviate snoring completely. This can be accomplished by a number of ways. Use of POSITIONAL SLEEPERS is recommended in these patients. There are a number of positional sleepers available on the market. Many of these are over the counter and do not require a doctor’s prescription. These BUMPER BELTS all attempt to treat snoring by “forcing” the snorer to sleep on his/her side than on the back. One can also make one’s own positional sleeper with the help of pillows or a ball tied around the upper back. There are surgical treatments for simple snoring. A commonly performed surgery (done by ENT surgeons) is SEPTOPLASTY AND TURBINATE REDUCTION SURGERY. In this surgery the ENT surgeon corrects the deviated nasal septum and reduces the size of the enlarged nasal turbinates.
SNORING ALONG WITH SLEEP APNEA: When someone stops breathing while asleep it is referred to as sleep apnea (SA). Sleep apnea can either be obstructive (referred to as obstructive sleep apnea or OSA) or central (referred to as central sleep apnea or CSA). OSA is far more common than CSA and as the name suggests it is due to OBSTRUCTION to airflow. The obstruction occurs due to narrowing of the airway at the level of the oro-pharynx. Behind the tongue lies the airway. It is hollow tube which goes down, becomes the trachea and takes air to the lungs. In people who are overweight, the upper part of this airways gets obstructed by the tongue, “excess” soft tissue and enlarged tonsils. When these overweight people lie down on their back to sleep, the tongue falls back narrowing and obstructing airflow through the upper airway. The excess soft tissue around the neck also contributes to upper airway narrowing. The airway then collapses leading to OSA. It is important to remember that people who have OSA frequently have no complaints. They are NOT bothered by their snoring or by the episodes of sleep apnea. Their complaint (if any) is that the next day they wake feeling tired (not rested). These people feel sleepy during the day (this is referred to as EXCESSIVE DAYTIME SLEEPINESS) and may fall asleep (or struggle to stay awake) during meetings and while in class.
Many people thus do not realize they suffer from sleep apnea. They only seek medical attention when their bedpartner is bothered by their snoring or complains about their excessive daytime sleepiness.
As compared to snoring, OSA is harmful to the patient’s health. Nowadays OSA is considered to be a risk factor for hypertension (elevated blood pressure), diabetes (elevated blood sugar) and there are studies that indicate that untreated OSA increases the risk for heart disease and strokes.
While OSA is common in people who are over weight, have a thick (increased fat and soft tissue) neck and enlarged tonsils/adenoids, it can also occur in people who have normal weight and body mass index (BMI). In these people the cause of OSA is different (anatomically they may be predisposed to OSA due to the structure of their face/jaw and upper airway which predisposes to airway collapse while asleep).
Nitin K Sethi, MD, MBBS, FAAN