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Disturbing your spouse’s sleep in Eagle County

Sarah Mausolf
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily/Rob Pudim
ALL |

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” For couples, snoring can become a problem. Those nocturnal noises can mean the difference between snoozing side by side and banishing one spouse to the couch.

“Snoring has significant effects on marriage because it can literally stop a couple from sleeping together,” Dr. Casey Strahan with Vail Valley Ear, Nose and Throat Group in Edwards said.

But couples can work to silence snoring, starting with learning more about it.

During sleep, the muscles in the mouth, including the tongue and soft palate, relax, Strahan said. Snoring happens when the air passes through those relaxed tissues, he said.

“It’s like blowing air through a balloon that you have stretched,” Strahan said. “The tissue vibrates and produces noise.”

Men are more likely to snore than women because they have thicker tissue in the back of their throats, Strahan said.

Men tend to have a bigger uvula, that hangy thing in the back of the throat, along with a thicker soft palate, a swath of tissue on the roof of the mouth. They also have bigger tongues.

Along with men, snoring is more common among the over-40 set, Strahan said.

“As we get older, our tissues tend to sag, including the tissues in the back of the throat, and unfortunately that can lead to snoring,” he said.

One factor for snoring is highly preventable: being overweight.

“As people gain weight, you gain weight in your fingers and your neck and your face, and in the back of the throat, and so if you have more tissue in the back of your throat, you’re more likely to snore,” Strahan said.

That’s why doctors often recommend losing weight to muffle snoring.

Strahan said he sees two or three patients per week for snoring.

For some patients, an in-office procedure can help. Strahan uses a technique called radiofrequency ablation to create scarring on the soft palate, which stiffens the tissue and prevents it from vibrating. Strahan numbs the palate with a local anesthesia, inserts an instrument into the muscle and “cooks” the tissue for 12 to 15 seconds. Although the area hurts for about three days afterward, radiofrequency ablation Is a low risk procedure, Strahan said.

‘I’m tired all the time’

Yet in some cases, snoring is a sign of a more serious condition: sleep apnea.

“Snoring just bothers the spouse, but sleep apnea has long-term implications for the patient’s health,” Strahan said.

Sleep apnea means that the patient stops breathing during sleep, sometimes for 15 to 30 seconds at a time, he said.

Strahan said he usually perks up when a patient says: “I’m tired all the time, I can never get enough sleep.” People who have sleep apnea don’t wake up refreshed, he said.

With sleep apnea, the tissues in the back of the throat collapse completely, preventing air from getting through, he said.

As a result, the blood fails to get enough oxygen, putting stress on the lungs and heart, he said. Sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, or a heart attack, Strahan said.

If a doctor suspects the patient has sleep apnea, he or she will refer that patient to a sleep clinic for a study.

One of those clinics is the Exempla Lutheran Medical Center’s sleep center in Wheat Ridge, just outside Denver. Ninety-five percent of the patients who undergo a sleep study at the clinic snore, center manager Beth Bidwell said.

Patients check in for an overnight study in a hotel-like setting, she said. Doctors attach electrodes to different parts of the body, including under the nose to monitor air flow. The most common form of apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. It emerges in the form of flatlines on the grid showing air flow, which means the person stops breathing, along with movement in the chest or abdomen, which indicates the person is still trying to breath, Bidwell said.

For sleep apnea patients, the treatment is far more involved. For mild cases, doctors sometimes recommend the person switches sleeping positions. For example, if patients stop breathing when they sleep on their backs, the doctors will recommend they sleep in a different position. Patients often sew a tennis ball into the back of their pajamas to stop themselves from sleeping on their backs.

For moderate to severe cases, the sleep center often calls for patients to wear a mask over their nose as they sleep. The mask blows air into the back of the throat, preventing the tissues from collapsing.

If this method fails, or the patient finds it intolerable, doctors will sometimes call for surgery.

Doctors remove the tonsils, if they are present, along with the uvula and a portion of the soft palate, Strahan said.

“That procedure hurts a lot,” Strahan said. “Recovery is at least two weeks.”

The surgery resolves the sleep apnea only 50 to 60 percent of the time, and not all sleep apnea patients are candidates for the procedure, Strahan said.

“That procedure’s only done if more conservative treatment has failed,” he said.

High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 748-2938 or smausolf@vaildaily.com.


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