Although some people may think that sleep apnea and snoring are the same thing, in fact there are several major differences. Sleep apnea is a condition during which the sufferer has abnormal pauses in their breathing, or has an abnormally low level of breathing while they sleep. This may be down to a physical blockage in the airflow, a lack of respiratory effort, or even a combination of the two factors. The most common kind of apnea is OSA, or Obstructive Sleep Apnea, which is caused by a physical blockage to the airflow. Someone suffering from OSA often has no idea that they are struggling to breathe, and usually the problem is identified by their partner or another person sharing the room. OSA sufferers often feel tired during the day or even fall asleep while watching TV, sitting in their car or even while talking to others. They may also suffer from poor motivation and work performance as well as other cognitive and behavioural problems.
On the other hand, snoring is a result of the respiratory structures vibrating because of obstructions to the air movement while they breathe during their sleep. Usually, this is due to an elongated soft palate, an over-large tongue, obstructions in the nasal passages or the tissue which hangs down into the back of the throat known as the uvula. While 50% of adults suffer from snoring, only 1 in 15 people have sleep apnea, and while people who snore may also have sleep apnea, not everyone with sleep apnea snores.
What exactly is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is an extremely common sleep disorder during which someone will stop breathing for short periods while they sleep, which may occur just a couple of times a night or hundreds of times. Whenever someone ceases breathing while they sleep, they become partially awake as the brain becomes forced out of deep sleep to begin breathing once more. If this occurs lots of times per hour, the quality of sleep naturally decreases causing a host of other medical problems.
Sleep apnea types
- The most common form of apnea is Obstructive Sleep Apnea which affects around 2% of women and 4% of men. Very few people suffering from OSA seek treatment for their condition, possibly as low as 10%, meaning that the majority of sufferers have yet to be diagnosed. Caused by either a complete or partial airway blockage during the patient’s sleep due to the tongue or other fatty tissues in the throat falling back into the airway, OSA results in a reduction of blood flow to the brain which signals the body to wake and breathe. The patient may then gasp, snort or choke as they take a deep breath to overcome the obstruction. OSA may be mild, moderate or severe.
- Central sleep apnea (CSA) takes place when the brain fails temporarily to signal to the muscles which control breathing. Instead of being a mechanical problem as is the case with OSA, CSA is a communication problem and occurs much less frequently than OSA. Often it is caused by other conditions and medical problems affecting the brainstem and therefore the symptoms and types of CSA can vary from patient to patient. There are numerous conditions which can result in CSA including Parkinson’s Disease, obesity, heart failure and the taking of some medications such as narcotic painkillers. Men are much more likely to be a sufferer than women, and it is most prevalent in people aged over 65.
- Mixed Sleep Apnea – this is a combination of the symptoms of CSA and OSA. For example, in some cases of OSA, when patients are treated with a CPAP machine they will start to show the symptoms of CSA instead. This phenomenon has been recognised for some time in sleep laboratories and a study of 223 sleep apnea patients proved that around 15% of those who were thought to suffer from OSA actually had mixed sleep apnea instead. Mixed sleep apnea occurs when a patient’s airways are splinted open to be free from any obstruction, but they still experience difficulty in breathing whilst asleep.
Sleep apnea symptoms
- Stopping breathing while sleeping or breathing irregularly during sleep which leads to regular awakening during the night. Patients may gasp, choke or snort when they wake as they struggle to get their breath.
- Excessive tiredness during the day, perhaps resulting in falling asleep while doing other activities such as watching television, reading or working.
- Changes in mood and poor concentration due to excessive fatigue. Patients may also suffer from headaches in the morning.
What is snoring?
Snoring is caused by vibrations in the soft palate tissues causing air particles to form sound waves. In the same way that the vocal chords vibrate and form your voice, so turbulent airflow while sleeping results in the tissues in the throat and roof of your mouth to vibrate resulting in snoring.
How can I tell the difference between apnea and snoring?
It is important to find out whether you are suffering from simple snoring or sleep apnea, especially if you are considering getting treatment. While snoring is generally harmless, sleep apnea may result in several health problems including strokes, hypertension, heart attacks, diabetes and obesity. There is no test at the moment that can determine which of the two conditions you are suffering from. Some people suffer from snoring and have sleep apnea too, and therefore you should talk to your doctor in order to be referred to a sleep specialist so that you can have a sleep study carried out or a home sleep test that will screen you for apnea. There are also some other resources that you can consider if you want to be sure whether you are suffering from sleep apnea or not. Tests like the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, Snore Score, Berlin Sleep Questionnaire or STOP-BANG can all help to determine your condition. Although snoring is not necessarily a sign of sleep apnea, it may be one of the symptoms, and only a qualified doctor can determine whether the condition is related to apnea or is in fact a benign snoring problem.