Many a joke has been made about people's snoring.
But Dr. Lida Osbern, with the Reed Medical Group in Lawrence, says the irritating sound that can drive your spouse up the wall may actually be a symptom of what can be a fatal disease.
"Sleep apnea" is the partial and sometimes complete obstruction of the air flow during sleep. In other words, a person with sleep apnea actually stops breathing while asleep.
"It simply is the cessation of air flow for a period of 10 seconds or more," Osbern said. "And what happens with no air flow is the oxygen in the blood drops to a dangerous level, perhaps leading to serious abnormalities of the heart or even sudden death during sleep."
Osbern will speak about sleep apnea next Tuesday night as part of Lawrence Memorial Hospital's continuing education program. Her talk, which begins at 7 p.m. in the hospital's education auditorium, is titled "Snoring Disturbing or Deadly?"
OSBERN SAID people with sleep apnea may not be aware of it, even when their breathing stops up to 400 times a night. But their bed partners often are.
"But he may have other symptoms such as falling asleep during the day, or while driving," she said. "Also, they may have headaches in the morning due to the brain swelling from lack of oxygen."
Osbern, whose specialty is internal medicine, said she has become something of a zealot about sleep apnea.
"Anyone who snores should talk to his or her physician," she said. "It's a problem that can be diagnosed and treated very easily."
Osbern said she has seen people in Lawrence who have ignored symptoms and paid a terrible price. For example, two young men she knew had the disorder.
"BOTH WERE encouraged to talk to their doctor about the symptoms and both refused," she said. "They ended up in the hospital with heart and lung failure. Sadly, one of them died."
Osbern said a person who snores can be tested easily to see if the snoring is a sign of sleep apnea. She said a Vitalog, a testing device that is carried in a small suitcase, has bands that hook to a person's chest and abdomen and record the person's breathing patterns while he or she sleeps. The test also uses a probe to measure the level of oxygen in the blood and a small microphone placed over the trachea to record breathing patterns. Unlike 15 years ago, when sleep apnea was first identified, people can test themselves at home, sleeping in their own bedroom.
THE DISEASE is more common in men, but women and children can also have it. Researchers say it may be the cause of sudden infant death syndrone, Osbern said. The disease is more common in overweight people, but others are susceptible as well.
She said the cause of the disease is thought to be a brain abnormality.
"The brain does not send the appropriate signal to the throat to stay open during sleep," she said.
Doctors have a number of methods to treat the symptoms of sleep apnea, Osbern said. One involves surgery to remove excess skin from inside the throat; but it has only a 50 percent success rate.
Another treatment, called "nasal continuous positive airway pressure," blows air from a machine into the throat through a soft mask that fits over the nose, she said. It has a 99 percent success rate.
"IT'S MUCH safer than taking an aspirin a day, and yet it's a life-saver," she said.
When the symptoms are corrected, Osbern said, "patients feel amazingly better. They no longer fall asleep at the wheel, they are no longer irritable, they often begin to loose weight and, in men, their sex life often returns."