Light snoring—the kind that is resolved by either changing sleep position from your back to your side or that only occurs occasionally after you’ve consumed alcoholic beverages—isn’t worrisome from an overall health perspective. It may annoy your partner, but it won’t have a serious impact on your overall health.

However, snoring can be a symptom of something more serious, especially if you find yourself snoring chronically, night after night, and you can’t stop doing so no matter what sleep position you change to. If you find yourself exhausted during the day despite sleeping for an average of 8 hours per night, your snoring could indicate a condition called obstructive sleep apnea.

All sleep apnea sufferers snore, but not all snorers suffer from sleep apnea. So, what are the hallmarks of this serious sleep disorder?

What is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

Obstructive sleep apnea is a potentially dangerous sleep disorder in which people stop breathing temporarily while sleeping, because the airway is blocked and no air is getting through. This lack of oxygen causes the body to wake up to restart the normal breathing process.

Sleep apnea sufferers often don’t realize they’re waking up multiple times an hour during their sleep —often 20 times or more per hour — but it is evidenced by fatigue during the day, difficulty concentrating, and loud, regular snoring that can sound like choking or gasping for breath all night. If you suspect you may have obstructive sleep apnea, further evaluation and medical intervention are indicated.

A Mayo Clinic study found that people who suffer from obstructive sleep apnea are at almost twice the risk of dying from a sudden cardiac event. The most common predictors of sudden cardiac death in sleep apnea patients are “an age of 60 or older, 20 or more apnea episodes per hour of sleep, and an oxygen saturation below 78 percent during sleep,” the study reported.

It’s estimated that 12 million American adults suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, but a large percentage of them are undiagnosed and untreated, and therefore at greater risk for sudden cardiac death. Could you or someone you love be one of them?

Symptoms of Obstructive Sleep Apnea

How can you tell if the “musical” noises you’re making at night are just regular, run-of-the-mill snoring or something much more serious? According to the Mayo Clinic, the following symptoms are common in sleep apnea sufferers:

  • Daytime fatigue and excessive sleepiness
  • A partner confirming that your breathing pauses during your sleep (this can sound like you’re choking or gasping for breath during the night)
  • Problems concentrating
  • Morning headaches and/or a sore throat
  • High blood pressure
  • Chronic snoring — so loud that it disrupts your partner’s sleep

If you’re experiencing several of these symptoms, your doctor may recommend a sleep study either at home or in a medical center setting to determine whether your snoring requires medical intervention. During a sleep study, sensors measure your blood oxygen levels, brain waves, heart rate, breathing rate, sleep stages, and leg and eye movements to determine whether you’re getting restful sleep or may require medical intervention.

Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnea

If a sleep study determines that you suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, the treatment is oriented toward opening your airway so that you can breathe easily at night. Regular breathing during sleep enables the body to get adequate oxygen so that you can enjoy a state of deep, restful sleep and awaken feeling refreshed and energized. There are several strategies for opening the airway. Depending on the severity of your obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend one of the following:

  1. Dental appliances. A dentist can make a personalized, form-fitting mouthpiece for you that will move your jaw forward during sleep enough to keep your jaw, tongue and soft palate from relaxing back into the airway. This will help to keep your air passage open so that you can breathe normally all night. Some users report jaw pain, excess salivation and dry mouth as side effects of wearing these devices. However, the trade-off is often worth it, as they once again enjoy restful sleep and can focus and concentrate during the day without feeling excessive fatigue any longer.
  1. CPAP machine. A Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine is an effective, reliable method for treating obstructive sleep apnea. Users sleep wearing a mask over their nose or over their nose and mouth. The machine provides a direct pressurized air stream that keeps the airway open during sleep. Advances in CPAP technology have made these machines much smaller and easy to travel with. CPAP users sometimes report discomfort with the mask and may need a few days to a week to adjust to sleeping in the mask. The machine emits a constant, white noise that can help cover ambient noises and encourage sleep, though it also may take some getting used to. Once again, most users feel that the trade-off of enjoying a restful night’s sleep is well worth it. We’ve even met patients who tell us they won’t even take a nap without using their CPAP machine!
  1. Surgery on the Upper Airway. By opening the upper airway, a surgical procedure can help expand the airway, reduce snoring and resolve obstructive sleep apnea. The two main surgical techniques include:
  • Trimming and tightening excess tissues from the throat,
  • Moving the upper and lower jaws forward to open the airway

Tissue ablation can also shrink soft palate, tongue and nasal tissues, which can enlarge and improve the airway. New surgical techniques are being introduced and researched. As with any surgery, it’s difficult to predict the amount of improvement on a case-by-case basis, as different patients may experience a range of different results.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a dangerous medical condition, but with proper treatment and use of a device or machine to open the airway at night, sufferers can resume their normal lifestyle and enjoy restful, rejuvenating sleep once again.