By Dr. Christopher Leet, MD, FACC Emeritus
Almost everyone has experienced snoring at some point in their lives, either in themselves or a partner. Mostly, it is treated as an annoyance. However, it can be a harbinger of serious underlying problems, leading to sleep disturbance, low work productivity, heart attack and even death.
Snoring is commonly a problem of overweight individuals, although it can affect anyone. As you fall asleep, muscles supporting the pharynx (back of the throat) relax, and if there is fat surrounding that area, the pharynx tends to become compressed, restricting airflow and producing a vibration in the tissues, heard as snoring.
If there is sufficient compression, the airway may become completely blocked, preventing oxygen getting to the body. The brain senses this, and wakes the snorer to take a breath. The person then falls back asleep, only to repeat the whole cycle.
Come morning, there is no memory of these spells, just a feeling of not having enough sleep. The individual may have episodes of sleeping during the day and a decline in productivity. The condition also has been linked to high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.
This scenario goes by the name of Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), and its incidence is increasing with the obesity epidemic. A recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine indicates that one in four men and one in 10 women in this country are afflicted.
The obvious solution is to remove the obesity. There are other options, some easy, some not. Putting the bed on a slant by a few inches tends to pull the diaphragm down and allow for better ventilation. Also, avoid alcohol before bedtime, and try to sleep on one side.
If this is unsatisfactory, a machine called a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) uses positive air pressure to hold the airway open. This requires wearing a mask during sleep. It fixes the immediate, but not the long-term, problem.
Manassas resident Dr. Christopher Leet, now retired, practiced medicine for nearly 40 years, specializing in cardiology and internal medicine.