Snoring may indicate a sleep disorder

May 16, 2012 By Marc Kawalick, M.D.

We all know someone who snores. Snoring is so common that we tend to accept it as part of life. The unfortunate truth is that snoring is the first sign of a serious medical condition known as obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder affecting millions of people and increasing risk for heart attack, stroke and diabetes, among other medical problems. Other tell-tale signs of the disorder include gasping for air while sleeping, non-refreshing sleep and daytime sleepiness.

With obstructive sleep apnea, airway obstruction causes you to stop breathing during sleep. When we sleep our airway muscles relax; that's normal. With apnea, the airway walls relax but then become floppy and vibrate against each other, producing the sound of snoring. Ultimately, the muscles collapse and seal, causing airway obstruction. If airflow is completely blocked the result is apnea, which means breathing cessation The airway is opened only after an emergency signal, similar to adrenaline, goes to the brain, alerting it to tighten the airway muscles so the airway opens. Unfortunately this pattern means the brain is aroused all night to maintain breathing; this results in non-refreshing sleep that leaves you tired all day. The other effect of the emergency signal is that it makes your heart work harder, at the same time that you are not breathing and not receiving adequate oxygen. This chain reaction increases risk of a heart attack, stroke and aggravates diabetes.

Primary treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is using a CPAP (constant positive airway pressure) machine during sleep. The machine opens the airway by sending air pressure through a fitted face mask which splints the airway open when the patient is sleeping, preventing collapse and apnea. Depending on sleep study findings, the patient may benefit by using a custom mouthpiece or surgery.

Men of all ages, women (especially after menopause) and even children as a result of large tonsils can suffer from apnea. Risk factors include being overweight or obese, having a small upper airway, small jaw, large neck, and activities like smoking and drinking.

Narcolepsy is another serious sleep disorder characterized by extreme sleepiness. Other symptoms include sudden muscle weakness in response to emotional stimuli known as cataplexy, and hallucinations or feeling paralyzed when awakening. This sleep disorder most often begins in the teen years or 20s. Narcoleptics are often prescribed medication to treat condition symptoms, including daytime sleepiness.

If you think that you or a family member may have a sleep disorder speak to your primary care physician who can refer you to an accredited Sleep Center for a sleep study. During a study at The Hospital of Central Connecticut (HOCC) Sleep Disorders Center, the patient's brain waves, breathing, oxygen level, limb movements, heart rate, and chin muscle tone are monitored by a polysomnographic technologist. HOCC's Sleep Disorders Center (860.224.5538) has two locations – the New Britain General campus, 100 Grand St., New Britain and at 1131 West St., Building 1, Southington.

Marc Kawalick, M.D., is a member of The Hospital of Central Connecticut (HOCC) medical staff.