How to cope with a snoring partner, why they do it and the tools you can use to diagnose the problem: story of a tired spouse
Anthea Rowan has slept on sofas, spare beds, even in hotel bathtubs – anything to get away from her husband’s snoring. Here she tells her sleep-deprived story, and asks the experts how she can finally fix the problem
“Laugh and the world laughs with you, snore and you sleep alone.” (Anthony Burgess, English writer and composer).
I sleep with a snorer. There are few things more stressful than being on the point of dropping off to sleep only to be jolted wide-awake by a loud snore ripping through your consciousness. And once I’m awake, it’s impossible to relax enough to fall asleep again because I’m anxiously waiting for the next, inevitable, snore.
I have kicked, shouted, shoved. I have held a pillow over my husband’s face to muffle the sound. I have slept in other rooms many, many times – easily done at home, much less so when away, where I have slept in hotel bathtubs cushioned in towels and complimentary bathrobes.
I love him, but I hate his snoring. I’m by no means alone. There are millions of snorers out there – 15 million in the UK alone. Twice as many of them are men, which means a lot of snarly, sleep-deprived women like me.
According to the British Snoring & Sleep Apnoea Association, bed partners of snorers report they often have to manage on just three to five hours’ sleep per night. They also visit their doctor more frequently and – ironically – are more likely to be hard of hearing than non-snorers and their partners.
“Snoring can become a focal point of both frustration and shame within the dynamic of a couple’s relationship,” wrote Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist, in Psychology Today in 2014. “The person who is kept awake (or who has to shuffle off to the spare bedroom in the middle of the night) may grow to feel resentful of his or her snoring partner.”
Resentful is putting it mildly; I have been positively murderous some nights. As for the shamed snorer – and I can say this with grace after a rare good night’s sleep – he suffers, too, feeling guilty on waking to find I’ve decamped to a sofa with a duvet and pillow. And – despite misconceptions – snoring is not indicative of good, deep sleep.
Dan Kew at the British Snoring & Sleep Apnoea Association says snoring “is the sound made by vibrations of the soft palate and other tissue in the mouth, nose and throat. It is caused by turbulence inside the airway during aspiration.” The sound can be very noisy – between 50 and 100 decibels, as loud as a pneumatic drill.
Hong Kong-based ear, nose and throat specialist Dr Terry Hung elaborates. “This turbulent airflow is the result of partial obstruction of the upper airway from the soft tissue of the palate, tongue, tonsil, nasal lining and/or deviated nasal cartilage.”
Being overweight, old or unfit can all predispose a person to snoring. “The common causes of snoring are overeating, lack of exercise and alcohol consumption,” Kew says, adding it can also be caused by “smoking, position during sleep, allergies and anatomical issues like collapsing nostrils, a receding jaw line or an increase in fat around the throat – a big neck.”
It is no surprise, then, that first among the remedies for snoring are weight loss and exercise, Hung says, as well as reducing the intake of alcohol and sedating medications, both of which make snoring worse.
My husband has tried nose drops, nasal strips (which were about as effective as a Band Aid on a severed stump), mouth guards and sleeping on his front. On a bad night, nothing works.
I put a question to Kew. Why don’t any of the over-the-counter remedies work?
“They do work [after a fashion], but only for certain types of snoring,” he says. “For example, nasal strips will help someone who has a problem with small or collapsing nostrils, but they won’t help someone who has a problem at the base of the tongue. It’s imperative to identify the exact cause of the snoring.”
Hung backs this up. “Nasal strips are only effective in patients with snoring due to nasal obstruction from nasal-valve narrowing. Mouth guards are only useful when snoring is due to the tongue collapsing into the airway during sleep.”
Kew says his association always recommends people start with its interactive snore tests, which he claims is the best way to self-diagnose.
“Once you know the cause of the snoring, then it’s just a case of matching it to the appropriate treatment,” he says.
I excitedly hustled my husband to the laptop, opened the prescribed snoring test, and ploughed through the questionnaire together. With bated breath we awaited the results and recommended solution.
“The results of the snore tests indicate you are a multifactorial snorer,” we learned. “Your snoring is most likely caused by a vibration at the base of the tongue, mouth breathing during sleep, and a problem with your nasal airway.”
Among the “cures” listed were weight loss, cutting down on red wine with dinner, and something called the Tomed SomnoGuard AP 2, “an adjustable mandibular advancement device to hold the lower jaw and tongue forward creating more space at the base of the tongue – stopping it from vibrating.” It costs around US$210 and the snorer may need to use it in combination with the Nozovent, a “nasal dilator made using a ‘springy’, flexible plastic (polyeteramid). It takes a little time to get used to, but with regular use, most find that they forget its presence in the nose.”
“They look like instruments of torture,” observed my husband miserably. I agreed, and I’m disappointed there’s not a cure-all. However, as Kew warns, “there is rarely a single treatment that will stop all types of snoring” – and especially not when the snoring is caused by several reasons. That probably explains why the European Patent Office lists more than 2,000 devices to alleviate, treat or prevent snoring.
As maddening as it is to sleep with a snorer, Hung warns that it is important to ascertain that the snorer does not suffer from any dangerous conditions. Tumours, for example, very occasionally cause snoring. More commonly, though, the culprit is obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), which can have a serious impact on health. OSA occurs when breathing stops for a period of about 10 seconds and then resumes, a pattern that can repeat itself several hundred times in a single night. “It is prudent to exclude OSA before contemplating treating snoring,” Hung says.
Hung recommends consulting a doctor who may prescribe a sleep test. Patients who both snore and have OSA may be advised to wear a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device.
It is very important to identify the cause of snoring because snorers are three times more likely to suffer medical conditions than non-snorers. More than 50 per cent of patients with OSA, for example, have high blood pressure, whereas only 25 per cent of patients with high blood pressure have OSA.
My husband does not suffer from OSA but I still suffer his snoring periodically. Relocation – mine – to a sofa or spare bed works best. Either that or pushing my earphones deep into my ears and listening to nighttime sounds on the Relaxio app – crickets and nightjars as opposed to a snoring, slumbering husband.