A huge part of the world's population of the world snores during sleep, something that is usually made fun of by others. But in some cases, snoring is not a laughing matter. It can often be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that can have serious health consequences.
Just ask around. Very few people will admit that they snore. Still, 45 percent of the world's adult population snores occasionally and 25 percent snores very regularly.
"It is most commonly believed that snoring is caused by vibration of the uvula or the soft palette against the back of the throat, but it's probably multifactorial," noted Dr. Stanley Chia of the Washington Hospital Center.
Chia is an expert on snoring-related surgeries. He often suggests to his patients a procedure known as a "pillar implant." This is a small piece of braided surgical fiber that is inserted into the soft palate.
"There are usually at least three of them placed at any one given time," added Chia. "What happens is over the course of about three to five weeks after the procedure, the fiber causes the surrounding inflammatory reaction and that causes the stiffening of the soft palate so that the snoring lessens."
Besides pillar implants there are several other surgical procedures to address snoring, though Dr. Chia believes none of them provides a complete cure. He says this is the reason very few snoring-related surgeries are done at his hospital.
Also there is no shortage of ads for anti-snoring aids in the American media. Some of which are effective while others not as much, contrary to the manufacturers' claims. However, the medical community does not think snoring is a serious problem in itself.
"Snoring itself is not a serious medical problem but sleep apnea can be life threatening," explained Chia. "[Sleep apnea] is frequent disruption of an individual's sleep caused by regular episodes of breathlessness."
Dr. David Gross, director of the sleep study center at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, notes this can have serious health consequences.
"The upper airway cuts off at night so the person, while he is breathing normally in the day time, when he goes to sleep at night his muscles get all relaxed and cut off. And this can happen over and over again 60 to 100 times an hour. That's bad for your heart and your oxygen levels can be very low," said Gross. "So those things can make the person tired and have low energy, bad concentration, fatigue during the day, but also it can cause strokes, heart attacks, high blood pressure and other problems like that."
But the question is, how are snoring and obstructive sleep apnea connected?
"Most of the people who snore don't have sleep apnea but most of the people with sleep apnea snore, especially very loud snoring," added Gross.
Gross says a sleep study is crucial for the diagnosis of sleep apnea, because its symptoms are generally very non-specific.
"There are patients who have talked to me who really think that they have sleep apnea and they don't and vice-versa," Gross noted. "There is just no way to know for sure without some sort of a sleep study."
Once it is diagnosed, sleep apnea is usually treated through the use of a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device. The CPAP blows pressurized air into the patient's nose and mouth - at a pressure level set specifically for him or her. Many people don't like to use the CPAP, however, because its face mask can be uncomfortable at first.
Gross says that since obesity is one of the main reasons for sleep apnea, wherever there is an increase in the epidemic of obesity in the world, sleep apnea usually follows.