Sleep Apnea: Snoring Down the House

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Shawn Johnson's snoring is so loud, he is lucky his wife can joke about it.

"It's hilarious," laughs Tina Johnson. "How can you do that and not wake yourself up?"

It certainly wakes her up, though. In fact, she has to go to bed before her husband does, so she can fall asleep. And even then, his snoring often wakes her up in the middle of the night and she has to go into another room to fall back asleep.

Click the player to see Lorie Johnson's report and hear Pat's comments.

Sound familiar? It's a scenario being played out in millions of bedrooms across America. In fact, 60 percent of middle-aged American men snore and 40 percent of middle-aged American women snore.

Sleep Problems

Dr. Robert Vorona is the Medical Director for the Sentara Norfolk General Hospital/ Eastern Virginia Medical School Sleep Disorders Clinic in Norfolk, Virginia. His specialty is treating patients with sleep problems.

"Snoring is the noise you make, because when you're breathing during your sleep, you have a narrowed, upper airway and so you get turbulent air flow and the tissues in your airway vibrate and they make a noise and that's snoring," Dr. Vorona told CBN News. "The reason the airway is narrowed is often because the snorer is overweight, drank too much alcohol before bed, took a sedative before bed, has nasal congestion or has an anatomical reason for snoring."

Common sense tells us that snoring will stop if you address the problem causing it. For instance, if being overweight causes you to snore, lose weight, and you will likely notice the snoring stops. Similarly, if you snore because of alcohol or sedatives before bed, if you stop that behavior, your snoring will likely stop as well. Sleeping on your side sometimes helps, as do over-the-counter nasal strips.

Sleep Apnea Closes Airway Completely

Although snoring is irritating to those within earshot, it is relatively harmless. However, snoring can point to another problem called Sleep Apnea, which can be very serious. Sleep Apnea is a condition whereby you stop breathing in your sleep. Approximately 80 percent of the patients at the Norfolk Sleep Disorders Clinic are treated for sleep apnea.

While snoring is when your airway is narrowed, Sleep Apnea is when your airway closes completely. This is serious, because when your airway closes completely, the oxygen supply to your body is cut off. When that happens, your body jolts out of deep sleep, so you start breathing again. This happens repeatedly all night long. The end result is that the person with Sleep Apnea doesn't experience enough of the deep, stage 4 sleep that restores your body, or the dreaming sleep, otherwise known as REM sleep.

People with Sleep Apnea wake feeling as though they haven't slept a wink. And the next day, they perform as though they haven't slept at all. Sleep Apnea can be attributed to accidents at work or in the car as well as a host of other behavioral problems.

Attributed to Other Medical Problems

In addition to behavioral problems, Sleep Apnea can be attributed to a number of medical problems.

"Since oxygen is being cut-off to the body's main organs, the brain and the heart, Sleep Apnea can cause heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, memory difficulties, the list goes on and on," Dr. Vorona explained.

"People need to be on the lookout for symptoms of Sleep Apnea," he warned.

"The thing about Sleep Apnea is it doesn't come on like that," Dr. Vorona said as he snapped his fingers.  "It's a very gradual thing. So I might just think, I'm getting older, I don't feel as good as I once did, but that's just age, whereas there's really a medical problem."

The symptoms of Sleep Apnea include:

-- loud snoring
-- gasping, choking, coughing while you sleep
-- waking with the feeling you haven't slept at all
-- excessive daytime sleepiness such as falling asleep at work or behind the wheel
-- personality changes
-- difficulty thinking because of fatigue

Dr. Vorona says if you feel you might have Sleep Apnea, talk to your doctor. Your physician may recommend a sleep study. At the Norfolk Sleep Disorders Center, patients are evaluated overnight. Their bodily functions such as breathing and heart rate are measured and recorded and studied. If Dr. Verona determines the patient does indeed have Sleep Apnea, he will recommend one or more of a variety of treatments.

For instance, just like snoring, if a person has Sleep Apnea, because he or she is overweight, drinks alcohol or takes sedatives before bed, the recommended treatment would be to change one or more of those conditions.

Other treatments include the use of a CPAP device. A CPAP device is a mask that is worn at night, over the nose, or over both the nose and mouth, that pumps enough air to keep the airway open.

Another treatment is a dental appliance that is also worn at night. It is designed to prevent the lower jaw from slipping backward while you sleep, and therefore keeps the airway open.

For more information on Sleep Apnea, click the related links located at the left top side of this page.

*Originally aired February 17, 2009

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Lorie Johnson

CBN News Medical Reporter

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