People who suffer from sleep apnea are, in most cases, loud snorers. But is their snoring a result of the sleep apnea or just another condition caused by similar factors (weight, smoking, drinking)? Do all snorers have sleep apnea? And are they too at risk for sleep apnea health-related problems?
Are snoring and sleep apnea one and the same?
To get to the point, no, not all snorers have sleep apnea. Snoring and sleep apnea are conditions of common origin but of different severity.
Sleep apnea is caused when muscles in the back of the throat collapse during sleep, blocking air passage. This produces pauses in breathing that can last from 30 to 120 seconds before asphyxia wakes the sleeper and airflow is restored. This cycle, characterized by loud snoring and then moments of silence, may be repeated 200 to 400 times a night, and can lead to severe health complications.
Snoring without apneas, hypopneas, sleep disruption, or daytime sleepiness is referred to as primary snoring, and is caused by partial obstruction in the upper airway tract during sleep. Studies are still ambiguous on whether snoring can cause health complications.
Both primary snoring and sleep apnea are influenced by the same principle factors: weight, age, gender, smoking, alcohol consumption, and the physical structure of the air passage. Sleep position is also a component that can aggravate or mitigate symptoms.
The health complications caused by sleep apnea are well-studied, and include excessive daytime sleepiness, depression, lack of energy, high blood pressure, higher rates of stroke, arrhythmias, heart attack and even death.
For primary snoring, the results aren’t as conclusive. Snoring has long been viewed as a simple social nuisance without health implications, but this might not be the case. New evidence suggest that it may contribute independently to cardiovascular disease and mortality, but more research is necessary to confirm this.
Some studies have also suggested that chronic snoring might be a forerunner of sleep apnea. Health changes such as weight gain, smoking, or alcohol consumption might “convert” a heavy snorer to a sleep apnea sufferer.
Weight loss, quitting smoking, and alcohol restriction are important health measures that can see improvement in snoring and sleep apnea. Other options include oral appliances, CPAP, and surgery.
Oral appliances, devices inserted into the mouth to modify the position of the jaw, tongue, and other structures in the upper airway, have a high success rate in improving and often eliminating snoring. Its success with treating sleep apnea however, varies wildly.
CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, uses air pressure to open the airway tract and prevent blockage. It is a common and effective treatment for both conditions. See our article on CPAP for more information.
However, patients, particularly those who only have primary snoring or light sleep apnea, have a low rate of compliance with oral appliance and CPAP use.
Surgery, such as soft palate surgery (UPPP), has the same efficacy in treating primary snoring as the above mentioned methods, but it is much more expensive and requires a recovery period. It also has a highly variable success rate in treating sleep apnea.
Whether you have sleep apnea or just primary snoring, it is important to be vigilant and make sure your condition doesn’t pose any health threats.