noring is a cry for help
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Snoring is a cry for help

Snoring is a cry for help from a person strangling for air. Yet, we tend to laugh at snoring, get angry at the snorer for keeping us from sleeping, or dismiss snoring as a sign of good sleep. Snoring may sound like a fog horn to warn sailors of danger. In fact, snoring is certainly not funny---it is a warning of danger. Unfortunately, the sleeper does not hear it, and those who do, usually don't recognize it as a danger signal.

Snoring and sleep apnea

When a person with sleep apnea syndrome falls asleep, the relaxation of the body leads to an excessive relaxation of the throat, a narrowing of the airway, and snoring. If the airway is completely blocked, even though the muscles of the diaphragm and chest are struggling to draw in air, no air can move past the blockage-apnea means without breath. The extra effort due to snoring, or partial or complete obstructions, arouses the brain. As soon as the brain awakens, the airway opens (sometimes with an explosive gasp), breathing resumes, and sleep can begin again. Usually the sleeper is not aware of the hundreds of arousals each night which keep him or her from getting normal sleep.

What happened to one world-class snorer

Like a phantom in the night, unseen and unsuspected, sleep apnea syndrome ruined my health, my happiness, disrupted my family, friendships, and work---leaving me nearly destitute. I was at risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and car crashes. I was also at risk for a life-threatening stoppage of breathing if I had become unconscious, undergone anasthesia, or any other medical or diagnostic procedure that might have led to relaxation of the upper airway. As a result of my constant fatigue, I was unable to function in my family, business, or social life. Yet, although everyone who knew me was aware that I was a world-class snorer, no one recognized the danger signals.

My personal experiences are typical of the crippling and life-threatening damage that is done by living without sleep. Here are just a few of the symptoms that I lived with for years:

I used to snore loudly. Scientists have discovered that snoring alone can have serious impacts on health, it disrupts sleep, and it often accompanies sleep apnea syndrome.

I used to stop breathing and gasp while sleeping. When I can't breathe because my throat is collapsed and choking me, my brain feels the extra effort and wakes up.

I used to wake up frequently, sometimes for no reason, sometimes with bad dreams, my heart racing, or sometimes just to urinate. Insomnia, waking up, or having to urinate during the night can be signs that something is wrong with the quality of sleep.

I used to fall asleep easily anywhere or anytime; I thought it was a good trait, except when I had to drive the family and could barely keep my eyes open; a couple of times I actually dozed for a fraction of a second. Because I was not getting proper sleep, I was always tired and my body demanded to go to sleep.

I used to be terribly irritable and have bad morning headaches. Both these signs of poor sleep made me very hard to live with.

I became so depressed that a psychiatrist was ready to put me into a hospital. The symptoms of sleep deprivation can be very similar to psychiatric depression.

My recovery

T. Scott Johnson, M.D., an expert in sleep disorders, has helped me to learn that it is easy for people to recognize it---get diagnosed---get treatment---and recover. I am again able to enjoy my life and work because I was able to get treatment, and through my daily efforts, make it work. I found out that I needed good medical advice from experts in sleep disorders, cooperation and understanding from my primary care physician, but that most of all I need persistent effort to make the treatment work.

Because many factors can affect sleep apnea, treatment involves a combination of life-style changes, avoiding certain medications, and surgical or medical intervention. I need to understand the influence of various factors like obesity and sleep hygiene and work on losing weight, getting exercise, and avoiding poor bedtime habits that could interfere with sleep. I am still at risk for breathing stoppage, so I make sure that my health care providers are aware of this and take appropriate precautions.

Like an astronaut suiting up for a space walk, every night I don a breathing mask for my travels in the land of dreams. The CPAP device (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) has a blower that delivers air under pressure to keep my throat from collapsing, so I am finally rid of the phantom of sleep apnea syndrome. The CPAP device is quieter than my snoring used to be. It enables me to sleep so that I have the clarity of thought needed to enjoy and succeed in my work, and the energy to enjoy work and social activities, including sailing.

One of my dreams is to be able to do some coastal cruising, sleeping on the boat in pleasant little harbors. My CPAP will come with me to prevent snoring and apnea, thus all I need is to take a navigation course-and find the right boat.

Do you snore?

If you have any of the problems and symptoms listed earlier and which are often associated with sleep apnea, you should find out more about sleep apnea syndrome and work with your primary care physician to get treatment. The symptoms of sleep apnea can be banished and your health can be restored. Snoring, too, can be treated by many of the same methods used for sleep apnea.

If you look after your sleep, then you, too can look forward to realizing your own dreams, as well. You can recover your health and your energy, and enjoy your life once again.

And be prepared to take on a lot of responsibility to make that treatment work, because your well-being depends on your own efforts as well as the skills of your doctors. You should join a patient information and support group because there is much to learn from others with similar problems. AWAKE support groups can provide a great deal of useful information and the opportunity to share problems and ideas. Once you are treated, you can help teach others about how to overcome snoring and sleep apnea.

© Copyright 1995 Jerry Halberstadt
Jerry Halberstadt was Chair of a conference for patients, family, and physicians presented in June, 1994, Sleep Apnea and Snoring: Recognition, Responsibility, Respect. He is President of New Technology Publishing, Inc., and co-author, with T. Scott Johnson, M.D. of Phantom of the Night: Overcome sleep apnea syndrome and snoring,

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