Snoring itself isn't a serious concern, but it can be symptomatic of a dangerous illness: obstructive sleep apnea. With this condition, your airway – which, when it narrows, causes you to snore loudly – becomes completely blocked and seals off the route to your lungs. "It's like sticking a cork in your throat," explains Dr. Douglas Bradley, director of the Sleep Country Canada Centre for Sleep Health and Research at the Toronto General Hospital.
After 10 to 30 seconds, your brain realizes you're not breathing and triggers a gasp for air. This kick-starts a return to normal breathing, but the pattern repeats – from five to 100 times an hour – and you can wake up completely unaware that anything's happened.
Not only does this pattern leave you excessively fatigued, which also increases your risk of being involved in car accidents, but it also increases your risk of developing cardiovascular conditions such as high blood pressure and stroke.
To confirm a diagnosis of sleep apnea, you'll be booked for a polysomnography – an overnight test at a sleep lab – to measure your sleeping brain activity, breathing, blood oxygen level and more.
Will I ever sleep soundly again?
With mild to moderate sleep apnea, a few tweaks to your lifestyle may be all you need to reclaim a restful sleep. First thing: Lose weight to shed excess tissue around your neck.
A 10 per cent weight loss can translate into a 30 per cent reduction in symptoms, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Ditching the sedentary lifestyle is another smart move. When you sit all day, fluids build up in your legs; when you lie flat in bed, that fluid has to go somewhere.
Page 1 of 2 – Can wearing compression stockings during the day really help with sleep apnea symptoms? Dr. Bradley tells all on page 2.
"Think of a half-filled pop bottle," explains Bradley. "When you lay it on its side, the liquid moves to the neck, making the opening smaller."
According to Bradley, patients who tried compression stockings to reduce fluid buildup reported a 40 per cent decrease in sleep apnea symptoms after just one day. Walking has a similar effect.
Consider avoiding alcohol and sedatives, which can cause muscles to over-relax. Also, try sleeping on your side to keep your tongue and soft palate from falling back, adds Bradley. You can even make or buy pyjama tops with balls sewn into the back to stop you from turning over.
Will I need surgery?
It's doubtful. The most frequently recommended treatment for all levels of sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which steadily blows air into your nose and down your throat via a face mask to create just enough pressure to keep the airway open. CPAP is a whopping 95 per cent effective – as long as it's used every night.
Sleep apnea: A hidden epidemic
It's estimated that 85 to 90 per cent of sleep apnea sufferers aren't diagnosed, either because they don't recognise the symptoms or because of lengthy wait times at sleep clinics.
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