Photo of snoring husband keeping wife awake Sleep apnea is seen twice as often in men as in women, and especially seen in individuals over 50, overweight people, and people with certain physical features, such as a small jaw or a short neck.

Checkup on health

— By  Craig Senders : UC Davis professor of otolaryngology, an ear, nose and throat physician.

Has snoring become a real disruption around your house? It might take more than the occasional shove or "Wake up, honey, you're snoring again" to solve it. In fact, if snoring is a continuing problem, it often makes sense to see a doctor about it.

Believe it or not, curing the snoring habit can make a big difference to a person's health and well-being.

Sleep apnea symptoms

Snoring can be a symptom of sleep apnea, the condition of disrupted breathing that occurs during sleep. Often bed-partners are more bothered by the problem than the person with the condition. A spouse may note loud snoring, then a long pause in breathing. Suddenly the person partially awakens with a gasp, then immediately falls back asleep, only to have the cycle repeated again. For some people, such a disruptive pattern can happen again and again, hundreds of times each night.

Sometimes all the snoring individual notices is that he or she awakens with a headache or sore throat, and is often more exhausted than when they went to bed. But that's not surprising. It’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep with sleep apnea. Affected individuals are often tired throughout the day and take naps whenever possible. Unfortunately, sleep apnea victims can also be dangerous to themselves and others. Without restful sleep, they are at high risk for dropping off behind the wheel of a car. Studies have shown that people with sleep apnea are much more likely to be involved in vehicle accidents.

This problem is seen twice as often in men as in women. It is especially prevalent in individuals over 50, overweight people and those individuals with certain physical features such as a small jaw or a short neck.

Characteristic features also are often present in the back of the throat. A person may have an especially long soft palate, the tissue that extends from the roof of the mouth toward the back of the throat. The uvula (the punching bag shaped tissue visible when you open your mouth wide) may be enlarged, as well as tonsils and the back of the tongue.

When a person with sleep apnea falls deeply asleep, the muscles supporting these structures relax, causing them to collapse and block off airflow to the lungs. Not only is sleep then disrupted, but the reduction in oxygen eventually leads to high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Solutions to sleep apnea

What can be done for sleep apnea and its early warning sign, snoring? The simplest solution is the hardest for most people: lose weight. The good news, however, is that even a moderate weight loss sometimes can make a crucial difference in opening up airways and getting a restful night’s sleep.

I also warn my patients to stay away from alcohol and all sleeping medications, which tend to worsen the condition. And most people discover on their own that sleeping on their side is better than on their back.

If these methods don’t do the trick, I prescribe the nighttime use of a special device consisting of a face mask connected to a pump. This delivers a sufficient flow of air pressure to keep the airways open.

Alternatively, some people benefit from wearing dental devices at night that modify the position of the tongue or jaw, allowing normal breathing.

Surgery is another treatment for sleep apnea. This can involve reducing the size of the uvula, the back of the tongue or the soft palate. Surgical procedures must be customized to fit the individual needs of each patient. A doctor specializing in ear, nose and throat medicine must examine you thoroughly and possibly perform special tests to best understand the nature of your problem.

Surgical treatment of snoring and sleep apnea have become considerably less traumatic in recent years with the availability of new radiofrequency ablation (RFA) techniques, in addition to conventional surgery. Radiofrequency energy is delivered through a needle, creating finely controlled, painless lesions. When scars subsequently form, they tighten and stiffen the area, resulting in a reduction of loose tissue and a larger space for air to flow. RFA combines good success rates with minimal discomfort and downtime after surgery.

A careful examination by your surgeon will determine what technique is best for you. Not all problems that cause sleep apnea can be resolved with the radiofrequency technique.

A good night’s sleep is more important to your general health and well-being than you might think. If you are constantly feeling sleep-deprived, or if a loved one constantly complains about snoring, talk to your doctor. Sleep apnea isn't worth losing a night’s sleep over.