Give Snoring a Rest

Snoring can be a minor annoyance, or it can put your health and relationship at risk. Here’s the basic info on what causes snoring and ways to treat the noisy condition.

Snoring can range from an occasional gentle rumble to a persistent, wall-shaking racket. The cause, however, is always the same: “Tissue vibration as air fights to get through the airway,” says Rochelle Goldberg, MD, president of the American Sleep Apnea Society. “Think of a flag snapping on a windy day.”

Snoring is a sign that air cannot flow freely through your airway as you sleep, Dr. Goldberg says. This resistance usually arises from a narrowing or obstruction of the passages in the nose, mouth, or throat.

The Buzz Behind Snoring

It’s been estimated that 45 percent of normal adults snore at least occasionally and 25 percent snore habitually. Common causes include:

  • Allergies
  • Deviated nasal septum
  • Enlarged turbinates (shelflike bones that protrude into the nasal cavities)
  • Nasal polyps
  • Swollen tonsils or adenoids
  • A large soft palate, large uvula, or large tongue base
  • A slack or small jaw that falls back when you sleep
  • Poor muscle tone of the tongue or throat

Certain medications, such as those that manage pain or sleep, and alcohol contribute to the problem by causing the tongue or throat muscles to relax even more than normal. This allows the tongue to fall to the back of the throat or the throat muscles to draw in, making obstruction even worse.

Snoring and Sleep Apnea

Snoring can be more than just an annoyance; it can be a symptom of a potentially serious condition known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Whatever is obstructing the airway may block it so completely that air can’t get through, and you stop breathing. When your blood oxygen dips low enough, it triggers your brain to rouse you so you can take a breath, but not enough to awaken you — so you’re unaware of what’s happening. All you know is that you wake up feeling tired.

The first step in treating snoring is to make sure you don’t have OSA, Goldberg says. You may have to undergo a sleep study, during which you’ll be hooked up to a machine that monitors your breathing, eye movements, and brain waves while you sleep.

Snoring Treatment

Once OSA is ruled out, the most effective treatment for snoring is to improve airflow. Goldberg recommends nasal sprays to keep your nose clear when you have allergies and room humidifiers and over-the-counter products, like specialized saline spray or gels, to keep the room’s air and your airways moist. She also advises snorers to avoid anything that irritates the airway, such as smoking. Some people also find it helpful to avoid foods that produce mucus or cause the membranes of the throat or tongue to swell.

Some of the available treatment options include:

  • Homemade solution. One of the simplest, cheapest, and most effective remedies is to put a tennis ball in a sock and sew or pin it to your pajamas, between your shoulder blades, so that every time you roll on your back, you’ll wake up. The idea is to force you to sleep on your side, which makes it easier for the airways to stay open.
  • Oral devices. Some oral appliances may be effective if the snoring comes from the back of the throat, such as the soft palate, Goldberg says. However, she recommends ordering a custom one from a dentist, as the success rate of the non-prescription appliances hawked online is mediocre. A continuous positive airway pressure device is commonly used to treat snoring.
  • Surgery. There are surgical procedures designed to open the airway by shrinking the tissues of the soft palate, uvula, base of the tongue, or nasal turbinates. But all surgery involves risk, Goldberg warns. Surgery may also change voice tone, so she advises actors or singers to think very carefully before undergoing any of these operations.
  • Pillar procedure. One new procedure that shows promise is the pillar procedure, in which three silicon rods, each less than one inch long, are inserted into the small palate. The idea is to stabilize the palate so it doesn’t vibrate as air passes through. The procedure is performed under local anesthesia, takes about 15 minutes, and is “about as minimally invasive as surgery can get,” Goldberg says. However, she notes that it is effective in only 50 to 60 percent of cases, although others claim the success rate can be as high as 90 percent.

If your snoring is becoming a problem, you may want to seek out expert help. If nothing else, it may allow you and your partner to finally get a quiet night of rest.

By Norra MacReady – Medically reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD