Sleep Apnea: When a Snore Is Much More

We've all experienced snoring in one way or another. Perhaps you have a bed partner that you’re nudging throughout the night to keep the noise down. Or maybe you are on the receiving end of those nudges.

up view of man sleeping in bed
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You might have wondered how to stop snoring, but assumed that it's probably no big deal. Everybody snores, right? It turns out that snoring can be a symptom of something much more serious — it could be one of the signs of sleep apnea.

What Is Sleep Apnea?

First, let's look at what causes us to snore. When we sleep, the muscles throughout our bodies relax, including the muscles in our airway. With this relaxation comes a narrower airway. Often, the airway is so narrow that the movement of air leads to vibration of the surrounding airway, thereby producing a snore.

Sleep apnea, though, goes beyond a simple snore. Have you ever seen someone who snores suddenly stop for a few seconds, take a snort, and then start snoring again? That is sleep apnea in a nutshell. It can involve those pauses in breathing and then suddenly gasping for air. If you’re waking up feeling groggy and irritable even after you’ve gotten what you think is a full eight hours of sleep, sleep apnea could be the culprit.

What Causes Sleep Apnea?

Unfortunately, for some people, the airway becomes so narrow that it gets intermittently blocked, which makes breathing difficult. This problem of a recurrent blocked airway is known as obstructive sleep apnea—a common form of the condition, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Does this mean you may simply stop breathing in your sleep? Not exactly. The brain has a convenient protective mechanism that senses when you are having difficulty breathing while you sleep and wakes you up. This allows muscles of the airway to wake up as well, allowing for a few regular breaths until you fall asleep again. When this occurs, some people may wake up with that startling gasp for air.

Intermittent blockages like this can become quite problematic if they are occurring frequently at night. Not only does it lead to sleep problems and fatigue the next day, but even more seriously, sleep apnea causes intermittent fluctuations in blood pressure. Over time, these repetitive fluctuations can lead to chronic hypertension, in addition to increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. The effects of sleep apnea and the resulting disturbance to healthy blood pressure can also affect mood, memory, appetite, and many other health problems. Sleep apnea and weight gain have also been linked.

Sleep Apnea Diagnosis and Treatment

So, what can you do about regular snoring? If you have sleep apnea symptoms, talk to your doctor. You can be diagnosed based on the results of a simple sleep study, in which you spend the night in a specialized lab room that monitors your breathing, oxygen level, and many other parameters. A sleep study is the gold standard when it comes to diagnosing the problem.

If it turns out that your sleep study results in a positive diagnosis of sleep apnea, there are things you can do to treat the problem and sleep better. The most common (and most effective) sleep apnea treatment is to wear a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine while you sleep. This is a simple device that delivers pressurized air via a mask, thereby pushing open your airway and preventing blockages.

It's also important for people with sleep apnea to avoid substances like alcohol and certain sedating medications. For some, sleeping on your side instead of your back can provide some relief, especially if your bed is comfortable enough to allow side sleeping.

So remember, sometimes a simple snore is much more. If you are worried that you or a loved one may be suffering from sleep apnea, talk to your doctor. You may discover that you can improve your sleep health and live a happier, healthier, and longer life.

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