Lying awake listening to your bed partner snore is no picnic. Ask anyone who lives with a snorer. I've been married to one for 11 years. During this time, the intensity and volume of the snoring has fluctuated along with the circumstances of our lives. When our children were infants, nighttime crying, feeding and changing sessions left us both sleep-deprived and he snored even more loudly.
That's when I started using earplugs.
Later on, it got worse. Working 12-hour back shifts every other week exhausted him. As soon as his head hit the pillow, his jackhammer-like snoring started and made it impossible for me to get to sleep. My impatient shoves to roll him onto his side were soon pushing him right out of bed.
He started sleeping in another room.
About this time, his doctor sent him to a nose, ear, and throat specialist. The specialist told him he had an elongated uvula (the finger-like projection that dangles at the back of the throat) and that was probably causing his snoring. The doctor said he could try surgery on his palate, but there was no guarantee it would stop the snoring. He also emphasized the fact there would be a very painful, two-week recovery after the surgery.
We decided to live with the snoring.
Months later, after a luxurious one-week holiday where we slept soundly side-by-side, we tried sleeping in the same bedroom again at home. It was a surprising success. My husband was careful to stay on his side, also known as positional therapy, and we've slept together quite peacefully since.
I know I'm lucky. Snoring can lead to sleep deprivation in a bed partner and that can have serious health ramifications ranging from irritability and depression to weight loss or gain and much more.
Dr. Rachel Morehouse, a psychiatrist and medical director of the Atlantic Sleep Centre, says, "Anybody who has fragmented sleep will have emotional health consequences because sleep is important in helping you feel rested and restored for your day's activities. If you have your sleep repeatedly interrupted through the night, you wake up not feeling very rested yourself and emotionally fragile, somewhat irritable, impatient and possibly sad. You aren't in a very good position to deal with the stresses coming at you in the daytime."
Bed partners of snorers can try earplugs or white noise, like running a fan, to colour over the snoring. But Dr. Morehouse says many spouses with a snoring issue decide to sleep in different rooms.
"People hate doing that because it's like giving up on the person," she says, "but separate sleeping accommodations are not necessarily a bad thing. Marriages don't break up over snoring … but spouses may use leaving as a threat to make the snorer seek help."
And when snoring is that bothersome, snorers should seek help-for they may have a serious medical condition called sleep apnea whereby breathing is interrupted during sleep. Untreated, sleep apnea can pose serious medical risks (see explanation below).
John Bedell, 69, of Saint John, says he knew he always snored a little, but he didn't believe his wife when she complained how bad it was. He did notice that his daytime sleepiness caused his wife some concern when he had to pull the car over to rest when he was driving.
"Before that, she was able to put up with it, or she went to sleep on the couch," says Bedell. "When I was in the hospital for something else, my doctor actually heard me wake up with a great snort. She'd been listening to me and told me I probably had sleep apnea."
That was confirmed after a stay in a sleep lab at Saint John Regional Hospital and Bedell was sent home with an HC220 Fisher Paykel CPAP machine. He's been using it for five years.
"Now I have such a good sleep with the CPAP," says Bedell. "When I wake up all the sheets are in place. The machine doesn't bother my wife either. It makes about the same amount of noise as a refrigerator."
Bedell says if he hadn't had his sleep apnea looked after, his doctor could have revoked his driving licence.
"If your spouse complains about your snoring, it's definitely worth looking into because it could really affect your life together," he says.
Even if snoring is not a medical issue, it can still take its toll on a relationship.
Forty-three year old Chris Roberts, of Halifax, felt angry with his snoring partner, Lisa Willis.
"I would poke her with my elbow and she wouldn't even budge," says Roberts. "If she did roll onto her side, it wouldn't be long before she rolled on to her back again and recommence snoring. In fact, just the loud breathing at the start of her snoring cycle would wake me up and I would lie there waiting for the sound to get louder and louder."
Roberts and Willis finally solved their problem by deciding not to sleep in the same bedroom anymore; something Roberts thinks more couples should consider without feeling guilty.
"The key is to separate intimacy from the act of sleeping," says Roberts. "When Lisa told our friends about our sleeping arrangements, they immediately began to say how sorry they were that we were separated. After a bit of discussion, however, they started to see the potential advantages."
These advantages have made "flex suites", or second master bedrooms, in new, custom-built homes one of the biggest new trends in the U.S. A survey by the National Association of Homes Builders has predicted that by 2015, 60 per cent of custom-built homes will have two master bedroom suites. Snoring is cited as one of the top reasons couples seek their own rooms.
"Many patients describe the snoring as being as loud as a lawn mower, a low-flying jet, or an outboard motor," says Dr. Goodday. "Some say all of the other family members have to sleep on a different floor; and I've even had patients whose families say their snoring actually rattles the windows."
Dr. Morehouse says simply: "If the bed is not a place of rest for partners of snorers, they have to sleep elsewhere."
Causes of snoring:
The overarching cause of snoring, says Dr. Morehouse, is upper airway obstruction.
"Somewhere in the back of the throat or nose is partially or completely obstructing the airway when you're sleeping," she says. "It could be the tonsils, soft palate, base of tongue or having a very small, narrow posterior airway. Symptoms can be made worse by obesity, nasal polyps, sinus problems, a previously broken nose or nasal fracture."
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition that can contribute to strokes, heart attacks and hypertension in sufferers. It is defined by daytime sleepiness in patients who stop breathing five times or more per hour while sleeping. Four per cent of middle-aged (30 to 60) men and two per cent of middle-aged women have sleep apnea. The best way to find out if you have sleep apnea is to have a reliable sleep witness or to be tested in a sleep lab. The number one choice in treating sleep apnea, says Dr. Goodday, is a CPAP (Constinuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine. There are approximately 32 styles of CPAP machines to choose from, but compliance in patients is only 20 to 50 per cent. This means patients who don't wear the CPAP all night long need alternative treatment. When an anatomic deformity, such as an upper or lower jaw in retro position, contributes to moderate or severe sleep apnea, jaw advancement surgery can be an option.
Finding a solution to snoring is a process of trial and error as different approaches work for different people. If you do not suffer from sleep apnea, Dr. Goodday recommends trying a dental appliance. These appliances fall into one of two categories: tongue retainers that hold the tongue in a forward position, and the more common mandibular repositioning appliances that keep the lower jaw in a protruded position during sleep.
Other solutions may be as simple as sewing a tennis ball into the back of a pyjama top to prevent rolling on to your back, using a therapeutic pillow, losing weight, raising the head of the bed a few inches, wearing nasal strips or avoiding alcohol before bed. If the snoring is due to nasal stuffiness, antibiotic pills or ointments or cortisone-type nasal sprays may help.
A search for snoring treatments on the Internet reveals more than a dozen non-surgical treatments. These include tongue muscle training using electro-neuro stimulation, palatal muscle training using electrical stimulation, oral sprays, and sleeping in a knees-up, supine position. There are also 19 main surgical procedures, that are possible.
"Unfortunately most of these treatments do not have good studies demonstrating a high success rate," says Dr. Goodday. "They're based on trial and error. We'd like to avoid those kinds of treatments."