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Breathing Well, Part 2: Sleep Apnea And Snoring

A surgeon explains why a common sleep problem could be more serious than you realize.

Many people think of snoring as innocuous, but according to Steven Park, MD, a Manhattan otolaryngologist who treats this problem, it can actually be a sign of a serious problem. “Most people just laugh it off. They think it’s a joke,” says Dr. Park. “But basically snorers are being suffocated through the entire night.”

"If you’re a habitual snorer, you have a 35% chance of having sleep apnea".

Besides the complaints of any loved ones within earshot, snoring has been linked with Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), a serious sleep disorder that can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. If you’re a habitual snorer, you have a 35% chance of having sleep apnea. In sleep apnea, the airways are narrowed, making it harder to breathe. If, for instance, the tongue relaxes and blocks the airway during sleep, you could stop breathing for 45 to 50 seconds. (If you don’t breathe for over ten seconds, it is considered apnea.) “Then the heart pumps harder and signals the brain to wake you up, but you don’t wake up completely,” Dr. Park explains. This could happen many times a night without your awareness, resulting in you not feeling refreshed in the morning, or forgetful and distracted during the day.

In their attempt to help themselves, snorers may buy over the counter products that don’t work, or take sleeping medications. Sleeping pills can sometimes make things worse by relaxing the muscles, including the tongue, which can fall back and block the airway, warns Dr. Park. In any case, they don’t address the underlying problem— obstructed airways.

"In their attempt to help themselves, snorers may buy over-the-counter products that don’t work, or take sleeping medications".

Dr. Park is especially interested in the link between throat acid reflux (laryngo-pharyngeal reflux disease) and sleep apnea. With throat acid reflux, you don’t feel it in your stomach. Instead, people may experience a lump in their throat, cough, hoarseness or post-nasal drip, and have trouble swallowing. “The acid can aggravate mucous membranes, causing swelling,” says Dr. Park. Throat acid reflux is related to too much acid in the stomach, but treating it like heartburn doesn’t help.

The red flags of sleep apnea include: snoring, inability to sleep on your back, extreme fatigue or sleepiness, morning headaches, depression, heart disease or high blood pressure. The more symptoms you have, the more important it is to get them checked, advises Dr. Park. For more information, visit