Snoring is so common these days that it’s synonymous with sleep. In the movies or on TV, a sleeping person is depicted with snoring sounds. Even in the comics, the ZZZZZZZZs that you see coming from the sleeper may signify snoring.
Within the sleep community, we often use the term benign snoring to mean snoring without any sleep apnea. We see it as the least important form of obstructed breathing, without any medical consequences. Every time I see this in our medical journals or in the media, I get mildly annoyed, since there’s so much information to show that snoring is never benign.
Snoring itself is usually caused by vibrations from the soft palate. Think of a reed in a wind instrument, or a flag flapping in strong winds making lots of noise. In the human throat, any degree of abnormal narrowing of the throat promotes vibrations of the free edge of the soft palate. The loudest recorded snore was found in a British woman whose sound levels reached 113 dB, which is louder than a low-flying jet. There are other areas in the throat that vibrate and make sounds, but they’re probably a secondary effect of the soft palate vibrations.
Here are 5 reasons why snoring is never benign:
1. If you snore, you have a 35% chance of having obstructive sleep apnea, which is a potentially serious medical condition where you stop breathing multiple times every hour, leading to oxygen deprivation, heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. The best way to diagnose sleep apnea is to undergo a formal overnight sleep study. If you stop breathing at least 5 times every hour, with each episode lasting 10 seconds or longer, then you’re told you have sleep apnea. But what if you stop breathing 15 times every hour, but you wake up after 1-5 seconds for each episode? Then you’re told you don’t have sleep apnea, with no clear explanation why you’re so tired all the time.
2. It’s been shown experimentally in rabbits that artificially applying vibrations to the carotid artery causes thickening of the carotid artery walls, similar to what we see in humans with plaques.
3. Snoring without sleep apnea has been shown to increase your chances of being involved in a car accident.
4. Not only is snoring potentially dangerous for your own health, it also disrupts your bed-partner’s sleep quality, health, and relationships. There have been reports of bed-partners becoming deaf in one ear.
5. By not taking snoring seriously, it’s likely that you’ll delay diagnosing obstructive sleep apnea. Many people try various over-the-counter anti-snore aids with mixed results. Most end up giving up until the problem gets worse.
If you or your loved one snores, take it seriously and get it checked out by a sleep physician or an ear, nose and throat doctor. Even if you’re found not to have sleep apnea, treat the snoring. Just because the sleep study doesn’t say you have sleep apnea doesn’t mean that you don’t have a sleep-breathing problem.