Deny, deny, deny. That’s typically what we do when someone tells us we snore.
But let’s face it – we probably do snore sometimes, and it’s really not a big deal. Or is it?
Although it can undoubtedly be bothersome for the snorer’s sleeping partner, occasional snoring is not dangerous and does not require treatment. Chronic snoring, however, could be an indicator of possible sleep apnea – a serious sleep disorder that occurs when breathing is interrupted during sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times. This means the brain, and the rest of the body, may not be getting enough oxygen while sleeping. As Mercy neurologist Dr. Alan Shatzel explains, “The cause of obstructive sleep apnea is a mechanical obstruction of the space behind the soft palate of the roof of the mouth and the base of the tongue.” The upper-airway tissues are collapsing in the space.
Other than persistent, and usually loud, snoring, there are a number of symptoms that doctors consider when diagnosing a patient with sleep apnea. Signs often include daytime sleepiness or fatigue, difficulty concentrating and memory problems. Sleep apnea is also a strong possibility if a person has experienced gasping or choking spells at night, headaches in the morning after waking up, or frequent awakenings at night due to snoring.
Dr. Shatzel, a physician at Mercy’s Sleep Center, is board-certified in sleep medicine and has helped patients with a variety of treatments. “For years, a pressurized air machine has been used with great success for those who can tolerate that therapy,” he says. “More recently, oral appliances have become a good alternative. These devices are worn in the mouth and help advance the bottom jaw and open up the airspace where the collapse is occurring.” As Dr. Shatzel emphasizes, “working with an experienced sleep dentist is key in succeeding with this relatively new technology for treatment of sleep apnea.” In addition, physicians have gained further insight with research into implantable stimulator devices that help keep the soft tissues of the upper airway stiffer and therefore less likely to collapse. These devices are not yet available or approved for patient use, but there is promise and hope as technology advances. More drastic procedures have also been performed, such as surgery to remove tissue and open the airspace, but with limited success.
The disorder is not just experienced by adults. Dr. Craig Senders, M.D. of the UC Davis Medical Center says: “Parents should observe their child who snores for signs of sleep apnea, like gasping or excessive tiredness,” he advises. “If there are concerns or questions, they can video their child and show it to their physician. Also, snoring without sleep apnea could be associated with some behavioral issues, like hyperactivity.”
Both doctors agree that positive lifestyle changes can and will make an impact on sleep apnea symptoms, and will also work for those who suffer from common snoring. A “cure” may be as simple as increasing daily activity to burn calories (i.e., an exercise routine, walking, riding a bike, etc.) and reducing daily calorie consumption. The result will be weight loss, which often helps bring relief to snorers.