Why Do People Snore? Causes and Treatments

Everyone snores, even briefly, at one point or another. Sometimes, we associate snoring with being overweight or unhealthy, and we can all agree it's annoying. And unfortunately, in many cases, we can’t even do anything about it, at least not immediately, although many have certainly tried. In fact, many years ago, exhausted wives sewed tennis balls into the back of their husband’s nightshirts to force them to sleep on their sides instead of their backs. It worked, but that is not all you can do.

Why do we snore?

No one wants to snore, nor do many even realize they are snoring as it occurs during sleep. Being a snorer is never a good thing. Suffice it to say, making the house rattle when everyone else is trying to sleep is likely not making you popular at nighttime.

There are several reasons why we make noise when we sleep. Some of us snore when sick with a cold because our nose is congested. Others snore because they have had too much to drink. Or, as the wives sewing tennis balls into their husbands’ nightshirts figured out, our sleep position can have a lot to do with us snoring.

We must breathe to live. Like many systems in our body, the respiratory system has a magical design, and it can be variable. We all recognize that we breathe into both our nose and our mouth, and we have lungs, but in between the two is a mystery.

There is also a point in our throat where the air and anything we swallow can mix and make us cough uncontrollably. That may not have been the best anatomical layout, but we can't do anything about it.

Snoring is the noise that results from the movement and vibration of tissue. It is the same principle that allows us to speak. Our vocal cords move and vibrate to make the noise, and we use the rest of our airways to make the sounds meaningful. In the case of snoring, the sounds are nonsensical and maddening.

Causes

The most common reasons we snore are:

  • Obstruction
  • Blocked nasal airway or sinuses
  • Floppy, excess tissue in the throat
  • A large tongue
  • Enlarged uvula
  • Poor muscle tone due to alcohol, sedation, or other physical problem
  • Being overweight
  • Sleep position (a combination of floppy tissue, obstruction, and relaxation)
  • Sleep deprivation

Snoring and body regulation

There is a great deal of overlap between snoring and homeostasis. Our bodies have a natural tendency to homeostasis, which means we self-regulate and our bodies automatically keep things running smoothly. In a way, we have built-in thermostats. A good example is our blood pressure. We may have high blood pressure, but our body adjusts to it being high, and any change is noticeable. We all have set points.

Likewise, even though we are snoring, any change to our airway will tip our scales against our set point or what we are used to, affecting the homeostasis of our respiratory system. In effect, the snoring tells us that there is something wrong, but we must be careful about changing things. Of course, in most cases, ending the snoring returns our set point to normal, but not always.

This is more important if the person has trouble breathing accompanied by snoring, a condition called obstructive apnea. A practitioner should rule this out in many people who snore since it is associated with many other potential health issues.

Treatments

Fortunately, for most people, snoring is temporary. The following treatment options may help:

  • Changing sleep position
  • Getting over a cold or allergy symptoms
  • Elimination of excessive alcohol use or sedatives at bedtime
  • Losing weight, dietary changes, or exercising
  • For children, having the tonsils or adenoids removed

Somnoplasty: A last resort

When all else fails, some patients seek other alternatives, such as a procedure called somnoplasty. It uses heat energy (laser) or other techniques such as placing sutures in the soft palate under local anesthesia in the doctor’s office. In some cases, it means the removal of tissue as well.

Somnoplasty should be the last resort for most people. It should never substitute lifestyle changes that end snoring, such as losing weight. Somnoplasty should not be undertaken if the patient has obstructive sleep apnea, since it may not solve the problem. Those contemplating somnoplasty should have a sleep study to ensure the snoring is not an effect of obstructive sleep apnea.

Somnoplasty is typically elective, not covered by insurance, and has its own set of potential complications. Some patients need the procedure done more than once. Others end up with terrible problems called velopalatal or velopharyngeal insufficiency, meaning nasal regurgitation, or fluids flowing back up into the nose during swallowing. It can also change someone's voice permanently. Some tolerate the procedure well, but others do not. It comes down to a personal choice.

The most crucial factor in deciding whether to undergo somnoplasty is understanding that any change to the airway or swallowing mechanism can alter the body’s homeostasis. It may take a while for the patient to adjust to the change, and that can involve not just breathing, but swallowing as well. This description is not to dissuade, but rather to inform, since some patients feel they have no other choice.

References:

Mayo Clinic. Snoring.

Medline Plus. Snoring.

WebMD. Snoring.

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