Snoring has long been the subject of jokes, cartoons, and sitcom episodes, but in a significant number of people, it is no laughing matter. Snoring can be a serious problem, disrupting normal sleeping patterns and disturbing partners as they try to sleep through the noise.
Snoring is extremely common, occasionally affecting 45 percent of normal adults. For 25 percent of Americans, snoring is a habitual problem, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery, whose members are physicians specializing in the ear, nose, and throat.
Clinically, moderate snorers are those who snore every night but perhaps only when on their backs or only part of the night, says Philip Westbrook, M.D.
A wind ensemble located in the back of the throat orchestrates the sound made by a snorer. "The tissue in the upper airway in the back of the throat relaxes during sleep," says Philip Smith, M.D. "When you breathe in, it causes this tissue to vibrate. The effect is very similar to a wind instrument."
A physician should evaluate heavy snorers to make sure they don't have a serious sleeping disorder called sleep apnea. For light or occasional snoring, here are a number of ways to have a silent night.
Modern science is now proving what Shakespeare wrote long ago in The Tempest: "Thou dost snore distinctly. There's meaning in thy snores." In general, says Philip Smith, M.D., the louder your snore, the more likely it's related to a medical problem.
One of the worst problems associated with snoring is a condition called sleep apnea, a potentially life-threatening disorder, in which breathing actually stops during sleep for at least 10 seconds and up to a minute, or even longer.
This can happen hundreds of times a night, contributing to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, memory problems, weight gain, impotency, and headaches. Sleep-deprived apnea patients have job-related problems and may be unsafe behind the wheel, according to the Washington D.C.-based American Sleep Apnea Association.
Sleep apnea afflicts more than 12 million Americans, especially overweight men over age 40. But women and children can have sleep apnea, too.
Symptoms of sleep apnea include loud snoring, that is, loud enough to be heard outside the room; snoring punctuated by periods of silence, gasping, or choking; and extreme tiredness during the day. If this sounds like you, see your doctor.
You also may find relief by going to a local sleep clinic. For the address of a sleep clinic near you, contact the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, One Westbrook Corporate Center, Suite 920, Westchester, IL 60154, or visit their Web site at www.aasmnet.org.
Philip Smith, M.D., is a professor of medicine and a physician in the division of pulmonary and critical care, who specializes in sleep disorders, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Philip Westbrook, M.D., is chairman of the board and medical director of Advanced Brain Monitoring, a company in Carlsbad, California, which develops software and technology that can be integrated into a portable device. He was founder and former director of the Sleep Disorders Centers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and editor of the journal Sleep.