Must Snoring Doom Our Marriage?

What really works for snoring? My husband’s snoring has caused us both a lot of distress over the years. We sleep in separate bedrooms because otherwise I can’t get any rest. He feels abandoned; I’m angry. The noise is so gross that it disgusts me. We have no sex life. On vacations, I often end up sleeping in another room or getting a miserable night’s sleep on the floor as far away from him as I can get. I use earplugs and can still hear him on a particularly bad night, even with two doors shut between us. There are so many gadgets, herbs and other treatments advertised for snoring, but nothing we’ve tried has worked well or reliably. What about laser surgery or continuous positive airflow devices? Is there any hope, or are we doomed to live like this for the rest of our lives (or marriage)?

It is a peculiar thing, snoring. What is it about human beings, and men in particular, that makes snoring so common, disruptive and annoying? Other animals must snore from time to time, but it just is not the same. Human snoring can really get bad: Men have been discharged from the armed services for snoring so loudly that they disturbed the sleeping of an entire room full of people. One man’s snore was reportedly recorded at an astounding 88 decibels, which is comparable to the sound produced by a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Now that’s loud.

Snoring results from the movement of air through a partially blocked upper airway. The partial blockage occurs during sleep when tissues in the throat relax, and is often worse when lying on the back. When relaxed, the tongue, the palate and any adjacent tissues such as the tonsils come into direct contact, obstructing the airway. It is the forceful breathing needed to overcome the obstruction that causes all the noise.

Must Snoring Doom Our Marriage?

Some people are bad snorers. They can’t help it. Indeed, they sleep in blissful oblivion while others toss about fitfully, covering their heads with pillows, using earplugs, trying anything to reduce the racket. It can have a profound effect on couples: You are not alone. There is even research that documents the stress, degradation of quality of life and marital problems that result from heavy snoring very much like what you are experiencing.

The most common type of snoring is usually mild and can often be remedied simply by repositioning the person to sleep on their front or sides. However, the kind of snoring you describe is more serious, and home remedies are not apt to work.

The first and most important question to ask is whether or not your husband has a sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnea syndrome. Classically, these patients not only snore heavily, but also stop breathing for intervals of many seconds to minutes due to total obstruction of their airway.

During sleep studies done to screen for this syndrome, you can watch the patient’s oxygen level fall to very low levels. As the oxygen falls and the carbon dioxide rises in the blood, the drive to breathe intensifies until at last there is a gasp followed by many deep breaths, and then heavy snoring resumes. This cycle repeats itself throughout the night. Sometimes patients are vaguely aware or partially wake up noticing they are gasping for breath, but usually they are unaware of the problem and the cyclic breathing disturbance is only reported by family members. Sleep apnea syndrome is an important diagnosis to make since it can lead to heart problems or cause significant daytime dysfunction. Some patients become so tired during the day that they fall asleep in the middle of meals or while carrying on conversations.

The most common treatment for sleep apnea syndrome is the use of a pressurized oxygen mask (called CPAP, which stands for continuous positive airway pressure) that is worn through the night.

Other treatments are available for truly bad snoring not caused by sleep apnea. There are at least three types of procedures done to the roof of the mouth — the soft palate — to make it smaller and less likely to obstruct the airway. Uvulopalatoplasty, often done by laser, removes the uvula (the dangly thing in the back of the throat) and reshapes the soft palate. Surgical procedures can stiffen the palate, and there is a technique that uses radiofrequency waves to reduce the size of the uvula. Uvulopalatoplasty appears to be quite successful in most cases. The choice of procedure may depend on the opinion of the specialists you see, their interpretation of the literature in this area and their comfort and familiarity with the different procedures.

Ask your regular doctor to rule out sleep apnea syndrome. Once done, referral to a specialist — someone who does these procedures frequently — would be helpful so that you can discuss firsthand the prospects for success. Not only are your husband’s health and your well-being at stake, but the snoring may be threatening to your marriage as well. I certainly encourage you to take some action. Good luck.

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