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bob maginnis - 10/14/01

November 09, 2001

What isn't funny about snoring



By Bob Maginnis


To: Dave Barry

Hey Dave, this is your old buddy Bob Maginnis in Hagerstown. No, we're not really old buddies, but I thought that would be a good way to start out, since I'm going to have to "take you to task."

Yes, I have to admit, as it says in your column elsewhere on this page, that snoring is funny. Any kid who's every watched cartoons has seen the one where the hibernating bear begins to snore. Each time he takes a breath, the blanket rolls up to his chin. Then, yuk, yuk, it unrolls when he exhales.

The problem is, a lot of snorers don't exhale immediately. They hold their breath while sleeping, sometimes for almost a minute at a time. Sometimes the snorer stops breathing hundreds of times per night.

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What's the big deal with that? The big deal is that when a sleeper holds his breath, his heart has to work harder to get enough oxygen into his blood. Sometimes it works so hard that he develops high blood pressure.

The condition is called sleep apnea and according to the American Sleep Apnea Association, an estimated 12 million Americans suffer from it. In addition to high blood pressure, the disorder has been linked to heart disease, memory problems, headaches and severe daytime drowsiness.

What causes the condition? The ASAA says that the most common type, obstructive sleep apea, is caused when soft tissue in the throat collapses and closes during sleep. Being overweight and drinking alcoholic beverages can make the condition worse.

Why do I care? Because I have sleep apnea. I probably inherited it from my father, a world-class snorer who could rattle the windows when he got into full roar. During sleep he would also stop breathing, make a choking sound then start again.

It took him a long time to wake up each morning and after dinner he slept in his easy chair, probably because he hadn't slept well in his bed the night before.

I've always known that I snored. One night on a camping trip to the Michaux State Forest in nearby Pennsylvania, my fellow campers banished me from the tent so they wouldn't have to hear my noctural noises. More recently, my wife made it clear that our domestic tranquility would be at risk unless I got some help.

I signed up for a sleep study, which involved being wired up to a series of monitors and spending the night in a bed in a local sleep laboratory. The next morning the technicians told me that I had stopped breathing several hundred times during the night, and that my blood contained only 60 percent of the oxygen needed by a healthy person.

At that point, they told me, there were several options. Two were surgical, one involving laser surgery, which your column describes, a bit too gruesomely, as a procedure that "basically shears off the back of your throat." That's an exaggeration, but a friend who's had it tells me it is painful.

The second is something called somnoplasty, which involves inserting a needle into the throat area, a needle which is set up to move at 55,000 vibrations per second. The vibrations heat up and kill the tissue, which begins to shrink over several weeks, improving the condition. It's much less painful than laser surgery, but doesn't work in the most severe cases, according to my ear, nose and throat dodctor.

Anmd so I went back to the sleep lab for a second study, this time using a device called a C-PAP machine, which is a mask attached at an air pump which forces air into your nose. The trick to this gizmo is that if you open your mouth to snore, you don't get any air at all. At that point, you either wake up, or close your mouth and breathe properly, through your nose.

Is it a lot of fun sleeping with a mask on? No, but I think more clearly now, I don't get drowsy at work and my skin, which had been dry and rough, is now looking normal again. All it took was getting enough oxygen into my body.

I had hestitated to write about this after the events of Sept. 11. After all, what's my snoring problem compared to the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center?

I'm doing it because of your column and because of the people I've met during the course of my treatment, including one man who told the sleep lab technician he'd been suffering from the condition for 20 years and couldn't sleep for more than an hour before he had to get up and walk around for a few minutes.

He'd already had one heart attack, he said, which is certainly where I was headed. And so, in conclusion, snoring is certainly funny when the snorer is a cartoon bear. For the rest of us. it may be a sign of something more serious, something people might get checked out if they took it seriously.

So Dave, stop by whenever you're in Hagerstown, but don't count on the sound of my snoring to guide you to my doorstep.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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