Snoring is a common experience that many of us are familiar with. We have either been told that we snore, or have been bothered (even woken up) by the unpleasant sounds during the night. These sounds are caused when the muscles and tissue in the mouth as well as throat relax which make the airways narrower. This restricts the airflow through the windpipe and causes the tissue in the throat to vibrate – the sound that is produced is what we refer to as snoring.
The mildness or loudness of snoring depends on how relaxed the muscles are and how narrow the airways are. Snoring can range from an infrequent occurrence to being a symptom of a serious underlying health issue. It is important to be able to identify the symptoms, be aware of how snoring impacts your sleep, and know when to seek treatment.
Causes & Symptoms
There is a wide range of factors that can cause snoring. The most common causes include:
- Anatomy: airways can be narrowed by the structure and features of the nose, mouth, and throat. Anatomical characteristics such as a deviated nasal septum, enlarged tonsils, roof of mouth abnormally low etc.
- Sleep Position: certain ways we sleep can impact the mouth and throat. Most notably, sleeping on your back which can lead the mouth to open and the muscles to relax can cause snoring.
- Alcohol: contains active ingredients that relax muscles so consuming alcohol during the evening can trigger snoring.
- Obesity: having excess tissue in and around the neck area and throat can construct airways as well.
- Aging: as adults age, there can be changes to tissues and bones that cause weakening or a relaxing of muscles that contributes to snoring.
Snoring can disrupt sleep and cause fatigue. People who snore are often unaware that they do and their snoring more so impacts the people around them, particularly their partner. However, chronic snoring can be a symptom of a health issue with other symptoms that are more urgent.
Snoring & Sleep Disorders
One in two people who snore also have a sleep disorder. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 50% of people who experience snoring regularly, do so because they have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that is characterized by intermittent breathing during sleep. One’s breathing briefly stops, recurring throughout the night. This causes:
- Lack of sleep which leads to exhaustion the following day
- Difficulty focusing and concentrating during meetings, conversations, and other tasks
- Headaches upon waking up
- Gasping, or choking for air at night
- Snoring that is more aggressive and disruptive
If you experience these symptoms, which are also associated with serious medical conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, you absolutely should consult with a doctor.
Typically, a doctor will conduct a physical examination and inspect your mouth, throat, airways etc. and refer you to a specialist who can further assess your sleeping pattern. A sleep specialist will likely monitor your sleep, specifically examining how your snoring impacts the kind of sleep you are getting. This test is able to determine if you have a sleep disorder which informs the most effective treatment options for you. Treatment can include:
- Adjusting Lifestyle: a doctor is likely to first recommend making changes to your lifestyle, specifically targeting the things that can trigger snoring. This includes: limit consumption of alcohol, losing weight, not sleeping on your back, and taking medications to treat any allergies.
- Using Oral Appliance: namely a dental mouthpiece molded to your mouth which keeps the jaw, tongue, and mouth properly in place; preventing the muscles from relaxing in a way that causes them to collapse.
- CPAP: continuous positive airway pressure is the most common method of treatment for sleep apnea. It involves wearing a mask over the nose which releases pressurized air into the throat through the air pump that it is attached to. The air pump typically stands next to one’s bed.
- Surgery: there are a few surgical procedures that can alleviate snoring. Options include removing tissue from the throat, moving jaw forward, correcting a deviated septum etc.