I have always been happy that I'm not a snorer or at least I was until recently, when my wife told me otherwise. After a few days of adamant denials, I decided to place a tape recorder on the bedside table. When I hit play the next morning, I was surprised to hear a rhythmic, rumbling noise that was enough to disturb my wife's sleep. In my case, the problem was transient, caused by a recent bout of allergies and sinus trouble. When my breathing cleared up, so did the snoring. Yet for millions of other couples out there, snoring is a cause not just of health worries but also of marital woes.
According to a recent study, nearly 1 out of 4 people married to a snorer will eventually be driven out of the bedroom rather than spend another night battling for sleep. Sometimes even that's not enough. "I see a lot of patients whose spouses can't just go to another room. They have to escape to a whole other area of the house," says Dr. Marc Kayem, medical director of the Snoring and Apnea Center of California, in Los Angeles.
Snoring is caused by a few things, but the biggest culprit is a vibration of very relaxed muscles and tissues in the throat, which rattle against narrow breathing passages. Symptoms are worse when you are overweight, have a short neck or still have your tonsils. "It's almost like trying to sleep with a straw in your mouth," says Kayem. As you might guess, snorers should refrain from sleeping on their back, as gravity will pull muscles toward the back of the throat. Sleeping on your side is best. It's also helpful to cut back on relaxants like alcohol and certain medications before bed.
Nasal strips, which adhere to the bridge of the nose and widen airways, are popular, but I have always been dubious about them. Kayem recommends them but only for people whose snoring is due to sinus blockage. They won't help chronic snorers with loose muscles in their throats.
There are some over-the-counter sprays that work by coating the soft palate. But if you use the spray, be sure to reapply it after you drink any liquid. Mouth guards customized by a dentist can be useful yet pricey. They work by moving your jaw forward, which allows more room in your throat. Similar appliances are sold over the counter, but sleep experts urge patients to pass up such noncustomized options.
Weight plays a key role too. For many people who have noticed their snoring symptoms worsening, the answer may be as simple as dropping five or 10 extra pounds. But many people need to lose a lot more than that. For these folks, snoring is more than a nuisance; it can literally be a matter of life and death. Two-thirds of chronic snorers develop a serious condition known as obstructive sleep apnea. In between snores, the breathing passages get completely blocked, resulting in no air at all for 10 seconds or more. In those 10 seconds, your brain isn't getting oxygen and your blood isn't pumping to your heart. This can cause high blood pressure, fatigue and a decrease in productivity. In severe cases, it can lead to stroke or heart attack.
Many patients experience dramatic improvements when their doctors prescribe nighttime breathing masks, which gently force air past obstructions. A relatively new, minimally invasive solution called the pillar procedure may fix the problem permanently with the aid of three to five implants inserted into the soft palate. The idea is to stiffen the tissue and provide a wider opening for breathing. Small studies show a 75% success rate. The procedure takes only about 15 minutes and is said to be virtually painless. The downside is that it costs from $1,500 to $3,000 and isn't usually covered by insurance. No matter what method you choose, the key is not to brush off symptoms. If you catch them early, you can protect both yourself and your marriage. So thanks, honey, for telling me I snore.
With reporting by Danielle Dellorto/Atlanta
Next Dear (Food) Diary