Ear, Nose, Throat, & Allergy

What Causes Snoring?

Just about everyone has had some experience with a person who snores. Snoring is very common among adults, affecting 90 million Americans. Although snoring may not be bothersome to the patient, his or her bed partner might feel differently as it can prevent them from obtaining a good night sleep. Snoring refers to a low-pitched, rattling sound that a person makes while they breathe during sleep. The noise is caused by obstruction of airflow through the passages at the back of the mouth and nose. After falling asleep, the muscles in the roof of the mouth (palate), tongue, and throat begin to relax and collapse. This causes narrowing of the airway and obstruction of free air flow during inhalation and exhalation. As a result, structures in the nose/mouth begin to vibrate, creating the bothersome rattling noise that keeps people up at night. Patients with a large uvula (the thing that hangs down in the back of the throat), tongue, tonsils, and adenoids are more likely to snore at night. Excessive weight gain can be another cause of snoring. Not only can snoring be annoying, but it might also be an indicator of a more serious health condition known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). OSA is a disorder in which a person’s breathing pauses while they are asleep. If untreated, OSA can increase the risk for cardiac and pulmonary related disease, such as high blood pressure and heart disease. The best way to get evaluated for OSA is obtain a complete head and neck examination (usually done by a Otolaryngologist-Head and Neck Surgeon) to identify anatomical risk factors for OSA (as well as snoring) .The next appropriate test in many situations is a sleep study (polysomnogram). A sleep study is usually performed by spending a night in the hospital while the patient’s sleep habits are recorded. In some situations, it is also possible to have an at-home sleep study, although the results underestimate the degree of sleep disturbance. If OSA is present, patients may be considered candidates for continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. CPAP is a small machine that has a mask attached to it which helps patients breathe at night. If no OSA is present, conservative measures are usually recommended. This includes exercise and weight loss, avoid sleeping in the supine position (laying on back), and avoid sedatives and stimulants (alcohol and coffee) right before bedtime. If snoring doesn’t improve conservatively and patients are extremely bothered by it, there are surgical procedures that can be performed which may help. One procedure is called a somnoplasty, in which the uvula is treated with a specialized energy source known as radiofrequency, whereby reducing the size and floppiness of this anatomical area, thereby reducing the sound known as snoring. For patients who snore and have OSA, a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy may also be considered. If you or family members have concerns regarding snoring or sleep apnea, please do not hesitate to contact Colden and Seymour Ears, Nose, Throat, and Allergy and set up an appointment today. Opinions expressed here are those of Daryl Colden, MD, FACS and Christopher Jayne, BA. They are not intended as medical advice and cannot substitute for the advice of your personal physician.