Snoring is caused by a partial blockage to the free flow of air through the passages at the back of the mouth and nose. As the muscles of the tongue and back of the throat which normally keep the airway open relax during sleep, they fall toward each other and vibrate, causing the noise.
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, an estimated 45 percent of normal adults snore at least occasionally; 25 percent are habitual snorers. Snoring occurs more frequently in males and overweight persons, and usually grows worse with age.
Mild cases of snoring may not cause a problem for the snorer but can certainly make it difficult for a spouse or roommate to sleep. If snoring is severe, it may be a sign of sleep apnea, a condition that requires a doctor’s care.
Sleep apnea is a serious breathing disorder that causes brief interruptions in a person’s breathing during sleep. (The term “apnea” means “without breath.”)
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea, in which air is obstructed or blocked from flowing into a person’s nose or mouth. Often, the blockage of air occurs as the throat muscles and tongue relax and sag during sleep. The pauses in breathing may occur up to 20 to 30 times per hour. These frequent interruptions in breathing may cause insomnia because they make it difficult to remain in a deep sleep.
How badly can sleep apnea interfere with sleep? Significantly: A report in The New England Journal of Medicine found that people suffering from sleep apnea were six times more likely to be involved in a car crash (as a result of drowsiness) than those without sleep disorders.
An estimated 4 percent of middle-aged men and 2 percent of middle-aged women have sleep apnea. But the condition could occur in people of any age. In some cases of sudden infant death syndrome, sleep apnea was found to be the cause.
Symptoms of sleep apnea include snoring, (although not everyone who snores has sleep apnea), and daytime sleepiness. It may also cause a choking sensation. Persons who snore loudly and also have obesity, high blood pressure, or a physical abnormality of the nose may have or develop sleep apnea.
The types of treatment depend on the exact cause and severity of sleep apnea. It’s important to have sleep apnea treated not only because it causes insomnia and daytime drowsiness, but also because it may increase one’s risk for heart attack and stroke. So it’s especially important to speak to your doctor if you have sleep apnea and are also overweight, or have high blood pressure or a known heart condition.