Many habitual snorers suffer from sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing comes to a halt repeatedly through the night. These pauses may last for a few seconds or as long as a minute or two and deprive the blood of oxygen, making the heart work harder and leading to an increased risk for a serious illness such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or stroke.
Types of Sleep Apnea
There are three types of sleep apnea: central, obstructive, and mixed. Obstructive sleep apnea is by far the most common form. It’s characterized by loud snoring and is the result of a physical obstruction of airflow, usually caused by relaxed throat muscles, whereas central sleep apnea (very rare, occurring in less than 5% of all cases) happens when the brain fails to send proper signals to the muscles that control your breathing. Mixed sleep apnea is a combination of the two, and is also infrequently seen.
Sleep apnea often goes undiagnosed for years. Most people suffering from it are unaware of the problem since it occurs during sleep; the pauses in breathing rarely rouse the sleeper. Routine check-ups don’t provide clues about sleep apnea, and blood tests cannot determine its existence. Often a bed partner is the first one to notice signs of a problem. Symptoms include daytime drowsiness, loss of concentration, and memory problems. Physical signs, such as dry mouth, sore throat, and headaches may occur in the mornings.
Treating Sleep Apnea
Mild cases of sleep apnea may be treatable with a few simple lifestyle changes. Losing weight, avoiding alcohol (especially before bedtime) and cigarettes, and sleeping on your side rather than your back can all help. Using nasal sprays or allergy medicines before bedtime can help keep your airways open. There are a variety of over-the-counter products, such as oral appliances that reposition the jaw and tongue during sleep and nasal strips that widen the nasal passages for unobstructed breathing, all of which have varying degrees of success.
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) is the most common treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, and can help those with moderate to severe cases. Users wear a mask over their mouth or nose while sleeping; this is attached to a machine that produces steady bursts of air pressure to keep your airway passages open.
Some people with sleep apnea may benefit from surgery. There are several different procedures available; they aim to remove excess tissue in the mouth or throat, reset the lower jaw, or stiffen the palate.