March 02, 2012

Can snoring be stopped?

By Anna Sharratt

Spending your nights with earplugs in your ears and a pillow over your head? Take heart: There are solutions for snoring.

When it comes to remedies for snoring, Kim Robinson is all ears. For the past five years she’s suffered as her partner Mark has snored his way through every night, leaving her frustrated and fatigued. “It’s pretty bad. I wear earplugs, I poke him, I turn him on his side, and at least once a week I sleep in another room,” she says. “My only hope is that I fall asleep before he does.”

Mark has exhausted a number of over-the-counter remedies for snoring. “He’s tried nasal strips and nose spray, but so far nothing helps,” says Robinson.

The end result is that she ends up with lousy sleep. “A partner [of a snorer] can lose on average two to three hours of sleep a night,” says Dr. Adam Moscovitch, medical director of Sleep and Fatigue Services at the AIM Health Group in Toronto.

Robinson can take comfort in the fact that she’s not alone. Forty per cent of men are snorers, according to Moscovitch. We tend to think of snoring as a man’s issue, but a smaller percentage of women saw logs, too -- especially if they are in the final stages of pregnancy, are overweight or have a physical issue such as a deviated septum that impairs airflow.

“Snoring has to be taken seriously by both partners,” says Moscovitch, adding it can strain a relationship when it affects intimacy. What’s important to remember is that the snorer isn’t doing it on purpose, he says. So if you’re sleeping with a snorer, make him or her aware of the problem – even if it means recording the snoring with a smart phone. “Don’t lash out in the middle of the night.”

Causes of snoring

Snoring is caused by the vibration of tissue in the throat, the result of obstructed airflow between the nose and the lungs. It’s usually the result of:

  • Physical issues such as a deviated septum (where the nasal passage is skewed to one side), large adenoids or tonsils, or benign polyps growing in the throat.
  • Genetics. If one of your parents snores, the likelihood is high that you will too.
  • Obesity. Fatty tissue can reduce airflow.
  • Allergies. These lead to impaired airflow due to swollen airways.
  • Alcohol, smoking and sleeping pills. These all relax the tissue in your throat, allowing it to more easily obstruct your airway.
  • Sleeping on your back, which encourages your tongue to block your airway.

Another major cause of snoring is sleep apnea, a condition in which the airway can close up to hundreds of times a night, causing people to stop breathing for up to 30 seconds at a time and gasp or choke when they start breathing again. Because it reduces the amount of oxygen received, the condition causes low-quality sleep, daytime fatigue, clumsiness, a higher risk of accidents and, if left untreated, may even cause premature death due to high blood pressure, stroke or heart disease.

Snoring treatments

The key to dealing with snoring is to determine its underlying cause and address it, says Moscovitch. If weight gain has brought on the snoring, focus on dropping excess pounds. Stopping smoking and drinking, keeping allergies at bay with medication and curbing the use of sleeping pills can all help restore normal breathing. “These are all simple things people can address,” he says.

Treatments for snoring range from over-the-counter remedies to more elaborate options. Moscovitch suggests nasal strips for mild snoring, as they help keep air moving through the air passages.

Surgical interventions can include removing tonsils, repairing a deviated septum or removing excess tissue in the throat with a laser. For mild-to-moderate sleep apnea, Dr. Lawrence Freedman of the Bloor Dental Health Centre recommends dental devices such as mandibular advancement units fitted by a dentist, which push the lower jaw forwards to open the airway.

For more tricky cases of sleep apnea, Freedman says a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine is often the solution, as it forces the airway open. “Severe sleep apnea should first be treated with a CPAP machine,” he says. “If the patient cannot tolerate the CPAP machine, then he or she may choose to wear a sleep appliance.”

But the most critical thing to remember, says Moscovitch, is to get a thorough assessment before buying a dental appliance (which can cost thousands of dollars and usually isn’t covered by private insurance), or a CPAP machine (which is usually covered). That means seeing a GP, who can refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist or a sleep clinic.

After all, says Moscovitch, it’s cheaper to invest in a product that can reduce your snoring than to get a divorce.

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