Let’s make one thing clear about snoring: It’s not normal.
In fact, snoring can be a real health concern, primarily because it is one of the major signs of sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep and which may be connected to cardiac health issues. Sleep apnea is fairly common, occurring in about 30 percent of post-menopausal women and affecting approximately 3 to 5 percent of the population.
The good news is that sleep apnea is very treatable, and often surgery isn’t even required to get patients resting comfortably.
Diagnosing sleep apnea
Complaints from a bed partner that you’re snorting, gasping or seem to be pausing while you’re breathing are a good reason to schedule an appointment with your health care provider. One of the first questions he or she will likely ask is whether you find that you just can’t keep your eyes open when your day begins to slow down, perhaps while reading or watching TV. Daytime tiredness and morning headaches are also common signs of sleep apnea.
To make a diagnosis of sleep apnea, your physician will use a test called polysomnography, during which electrodes are attached to your skin in several places and monitors record your heart rate and breathing as you snooze in a sleep lab. Although polysomnography hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years, what has changed is the approach to sleep studies. Clinics and hospitals are working to make these studies less stressful, and most sleep labs now resemble hotel rooms. Some patients are even able to do a sleep study at home, with sensors collecting information that can be downloaded at the lab.
Higher heart disease risks
An accurate diagnosis is important because there are different types of sleep apnea.
Central sleep apnea (CSA) is different than obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). In CSA, the part of the brain that controls breathing and the drive to breathe isn’t working properly. You may have CSA, OSA or a mix of the two, and all have ties to other health problems.
Untreated sleep apnea can put you in danger of diabetes and stroke. Treatment is proven to decrease morbidity and cardiac risk. These ties to cardiac health issues have made doctors much more aggressive about diagnosing and treating sleep apnea. In 2007, the results of a 10-year study suggested that people with moderate to severe untreated sleep apnea have a 2.5 times greater risk of stroke than the general population.
The potential cardiac issues are generally the same for men and women, although women are less affected by them if their sleep apnea is mild. It all comes down to a lack of oxygen in the blood, as well as potential damage to the heart and the lining of the coronary arteries.
If you’re diagnosed with sleep apnea, your physician will recommend treatment based on the severity of the condition, as well as other health issues:
- Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), a machine used while you sleep to increase pressure in the airway, keeping it from closing during sleep
- Dental appliances that pull the bottom jaw forward to keep the airway open
- Surgery on the upper airway
Most sleep apnea patients respond well to sleep appliances like CPAP, but follow-up is key so doctors can troubleshoot for you and make it more comfortable.
Another emerging option for OSA is Inspire therapy, a small, fully implanted system that delivers mild stimulations to airway muscles to keep the airway open and which may be an option for people who can’t tolerate CPAP.
7 symptoms of sleep apnea
- Loud, ongoing snoring that is usually loudest when you’re sleeping on your back.
- Daytime sleepiness, especially during quiet moments
- Morning headaches
- Problems with memory and concentration
- Irritability or mood swings
- Waking up frequently to urinate
- Dry mouth or sore throat when you wake up
Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute