Not all snoring is harmful so it helps to be able to recognise when it’s actually dangerous as it can sometimes cause a very serious lack of oxygen and life threatening sleep disorders. Over one third of the people who snore are believed to have obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA).
Overall it is estimated that 60% of men and 40% of women snore by the time they have reached their sixties and if they have OSA, then the primary sleep apnoea symptoms are pauses in breathing during sleep. They’re related to snoring and the resulting lack of oxygen to the brain during sleep.
Not all snoring however is connected to sleep apnoea. Loud breathing noises or ‘snoring’ can be described as a normal event. However sleeping with your mouth open and pauses in breathing may indicate a sleep disorder. If you sleep on your back, your tongue falls into your airway, and pauses in breathing can reach a duration of 10 seconds, and happen as many as 100 times in an hour.
The reason for your snoring stems from the relaxation of the throat muscles when you sleep. Less airway volume can mean that the relaxed throat vibrates when you breathe and this is the universal cause of snoring whether it’s harmful as described above or just ‘normal’ snoring.
In addition to snoring, other symptoms of OSA include:
- Gasping for air whilst sleeping
- Waking up with Morning headaches
- Feeling extra tired during the day
- Increased blood pressure
- Irritability or mood swings
For optimal breathing, we should be breathing through our nose. Sleep apnoea is your body experiencing breathing dysfunction during sleep. Nasal breathing prevents oxygen deprivation and it acts to increase blood flow and deliver oxygen to the lungs.
The tongue is one of the main factors in snoring and sleeping with the mouth open. It can also reveal sleep apnoea symptoms. Your tongue contains and connects to one of the largest groups of muscles in the body and the muscles of the tongue support the airways with connections to the jaws, neck, and base of the skull. It also connects to the hyoid bone, which is a floating bone that supports your airway.
When you go to sleep, the primary muscles inside your tongue and your throat relax and for you to keep your airway open, support muscles for the throat must hold firm. The normal posture of the tongue is to sit against the top of your mouth. This position turns on the muscles that support the throat and the airways.
Sleeping with an open mouth is a sign your tongue is not supporting your airway. The tongue can then fall back into the airway, blocking normal breathing. Mouth breathing can also cause lack of oxygen and OSA.
Sleep disorders have become a bigger problem than ever and this was underlined this week by the NHS figures which reveal that the number of tests carried out by the NHS to diagnose people with sleep disorders across England has doubled in the past decade.
NHS data shows that 147,610 sleep diagnostic tests were carried out last year – compared with 69,919 in 2007-08. This is more than double.
Those with OSA usually manage it by either CPAP treatment, which involves wearing an oxygen mask at night, or by using custom-fitted oral devices that keep the airways open. It also helps to lose weight and in some more extreme cases people can have surgery to remove excess throat tissue.
Doctors attribute the rise in the number of sleep tests to a greater sense of overall public awareness about the wider health implications of not getting enough sleep. It is estimated that about 1.5 million people in the UK suffer from the condition, although doctors warn many people will have never been formally diagnosed.
“Sleep apnoea is a serious condition leading to other problems such as high blood pressure, which in turn can lead to strokes and heart attacks,” said Dr Stephen Bianchi from Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital. “We think about 2% of females, and 4% of males in the UK have significant sleep apnoea. We also suspect that 80% of those with the condition are unaware they have it.”