Does your spouse complain of your snoring? Your sleeping partner isn’t the only one. Snoring is a sign that your body is suffering as well.
Causes of Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is a medical condition in which one stops breathing briefly while sleeping. When you are awake, the muscles in your throat and neck are rigid and provide a nice open channel for you to breath through. When you sleep, these muscles naturally relax, which causes that channel to narrow. Normally, this is not a problem as your heart rate and breathing slow when you are sleeping. However, for some people this channel becomes closed or blocked, which can lead to sleep apnea.
Common causes for this channel to become blocked include:
- Most Common: being overweight – if you are carrying excess weight around your chin and neck, this weight can put pressure on your throat, causing it to close
- Moderately Common: having large tonsils or a large tongue – larger than average organs in your throat can cause a blockage while you sleep
- Rare: the presence of a neurological disorder in which your brain fails to tell the muscles in your throat to stay open while you sleep
Causes of Snoring
Snoring is much more common than sleep apnea and has many more potential causes. Snoring occurs when there is a full or partial obstruction in the airway. As one inhales and exhales, the air is forced around the obstruction, making the sound of a snore.
Some of these causes include:
- Having an obstructed nasal passage – nasal passages that are inflamed due to allergies or having a cold, or the presence of a deviated septum could cause an obstruction in the nasal passages
Poor muscle tone in the throat – for some people the muscles of the throat and the tongue become too relaxed while they sleep, causing a narrower channel through which to breathe
- Larger than average tissue – some people have larger than average throat muscles, tonsils, or tongue; all of which can narrow the breathing channel and cause snoring
- Drinking alcohol – alcohol is a sedative and can cause the muscles in the throat to relax too much, causing an obstruction
- Being overweight – excess tissue around the chin and throat can put unnecessary pressure on your throat and cause it to become more narrow
What Can I Do?
Now that you know what the potential causes of sleep apnea and snoring are, speak with your doctor about which one is likely plaguing you. Many doctors will recommend a sleep study in order to properly diagnose sleep apnea. Sleep studies allow doctors to see what a typical night of sleep is like for you.
Your doctor will likely refer you to a sleep lab where you will be assigned to a private bedroom and monitored by special machines. The machines will detect changes in your breathing, brain activity, muscle activity, and heart rate. While it may seem like a lot of uncomfortable equipment, most sleep study patients state that they fall asleep rather quickly.
In the morning your doctor will have a print out of what your body was doing while you were sleeping. If at any point during the night you stopped breathing, your doctor may diagnose you with sleep apnea.
Many treatments for sleep apnea also help patients with snoring. Your doctor may recommend any number of the following non-medication treatments:
- quitting smoking
- avoiding alcohol, sleeping pills, and other sedatives before bed
- avoiding heavy meals within two hours of laying down to sleep
- avoiding caffeine after about 4pm
- maintaining a regular sleep schedule
- sleeping on your side
- propping up your head with some comfortable pillows or blankets
- opening your nasal passages before bed by using a nasal dilator, saline spray, breathing strips, or a neti pot
If none of these home remedies seem to work, you and your doctor may decide to try medical treatment options. Dr. Austin recommends an appointment with an Ear, Nose, and Throat physician at the initial concern over sleep apnea. A thorough examination of the nose, mouth, and throat will help make sure that an anatomic or medical condition is addressed, and treated before ancillary testing is performed. This examination is thorough, painless, and may include the use of flexible fiber-endoscopy to evaluate the anatomy of the patient’s airway.
Some patients with sleep apnea require supplemental oxygen while sleeping while other patients decide to use breathing devices. If your sleep apnea is caused by a heart or neuromuscular disorder, you and your doctor may need to discuss treatment options for the underlying condition.