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Snoring: Nuisance Or Serious Health Problem?

The Huffington Post   Catherine Pearson First Posted: 03/09/2011 7:04 am EST Updated: 05/25/2011 6:35 pm EDT

Whether it's a loud sawing or one of those grating, breathy affairs, snoring can be irritating for both snorer and significant other alike. So irritating, in fact, that recent Department of Health advertisements promoting marital health highlighted snoring as a potential source of tension.

Sometimes, though, snoring isn't just annoying, but indicative of an actual health problem. So, given the American Academy of Head and Neck Surgery's estimate that 45 percent of "normal" adults snore at least occasionally -- and a quarter of us are habitual snorers -- how do you know if you (or your partner) should be concerned? This National Sleep Awareness week, we take a look.

What Is Snoring?
According to the American Academy of Head and Neck Surgery, what you hear when someone snores is the result of a form of blockage that obstructs the flow of air through the mouth or nose. That blockage, however slight, can cause the tissues of the airway to vibrate and flap against one another -- thus the rattling, snoring sound.

Why Do Some People Snore?

The Mayo Clinic gives several conditions that can cause the snoring:

1. The actual anatomy of the mouth -- having a low, thick, soft palate or enlarged tonsils -- can result in obstructions.

2. Being overweight is another likely culprit, putting extra pressure on the throat, which can narrow the airway.

3. Nasal congestion, nose shape and composition can play a part.

4. Alcohol, particularly drinking before bedtime, "reduces the resting tone of the muscles in the back of your throat, reports WebMD.

When Should You See The Doctor?
The American Academy of Head and Neck Surgery recommends that all heavy snorers -- meaning people who snore constantly in any position -- should probably go see a doctor. The doctor will check the nose, mouth, throat palate and neck to see if there's anything wrong.

The National Sleep Foundation further recommends that anyone with symptoms like morning headaches and excessive sleepiness go to the doctor. That's because at least one study in the journal Sleep found that people who reported snoring loudly were at least twice as likely as non-snorers to have metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors for heart disease diabetes and stroke.

One thing a doctor will be on the lookout for is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) -- a serious condition that results in multiple episodes of breathing pauses, lasting for more than 10 seconds at a time. The problem is not just that OSA is disruptive (according to the American Academy of Head and Neck Surgery, sufferers can experience up to 300 episodes per night), but that it can lead to lower amounts of oxygen in the blood. The Los Angeles Times reports that OSA is now so prevalent, doctors are being called upon to regularly ask about it in physical exams. (Proper diagnosis often requires an overnight evaluation.)

Who else should go to the doctor? According to the Mayo Clinic, parents with kids who snore should take them to the doctor, too, as snoring can be a sign of nose or throat problems, as well as pediatric OSA.

What Can You Do?
The American Sleep Apnea Association, a non-profit that's committed to educating people about sleep apnea and "serving sufferers," lists several possible treatments -- many of them surgical options aimed at reducing obstructions. The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute says some sufferers can benefit from mouthpieces or breathing masks. According to a recent Los Angeles Times report, while prescription mouthpieces that pull the jaw forward and can cost up to $3,000 can be effective in treating mild sleep apnea, over-the-counter options that run closer to $40 are "unproven." The key, of course, is to consult your doctor to figure out what treatment is best for you.

When it comes to more mild habitual snoring, the first place many doctors will tell you to start -- according to the Mayo Clinic -- is with lifestyle changes. That can include things like losing weight, avoiding alcohol near bedtime and sleeping in a different position (usually on your side, not your back). After that, many of the potential treatments are the same -- "oral appliances," pressurized masks or surgery -- both traditional and laser.

And what about your partner? The Mayo Clinic recognizes that it's not just the snorer who suffers -- it's the snorer's partner, too. Their suggestions? Earplugs, earphones or trying to stagger the time you go to bed.

The Bottom Line?
Even if you don't suffer from a more serious snoring-related condition, sawing logs can be bad for your health on a day-to-day, practical level. A new CDC study tracked some 75,000 Americans, more than 35 percent of whom said they sleep fewer than seven hours a night, which could be because almost half of them reported snoring. And according to a second CDC report, not sleeping enough can take a toll on daily activity, impacting everything from your ability to concentrate and remember things to handling your financial duties.

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