Skip to content

The Snoring Sickness: Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Apnea on the Rails: Mark's Story (4:34)

"Once I found out what sleep apnea does to your health, I felt like, 'I have to combat this.'"
-Mark Kramer, locomotive engineer

Snoring signals that the sleeper is having trouble breathing. Snoring is the most common symptom of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a disorder that affects more than 18 million Americans, most of whom are overweight, middle-aged men. In fact, it affects about twice as many men as women and runs in families.

When people breathe, air enters the nose or mouth, and travels through the airway to the lungs. Throat muscles normally keep the airway entrance open. When people with obstructive sleep apnea try to sleep, throat muscles may fail to do that. The tongue then falls against the back of the throat, partially or totally blocking the airway opening. The sounds of snoring reflect a struggle to breathe through a partially blocked airway.

When the airway is totally blocked, breathing stops completely. A pause in breathing sounds an alarm in the brain. The brain senses the danger, and sends a wake-up call, arousing the sleeper enough to tighten throat muscles. The tongue moves out of the way, the airway reopens, and breathing resumes. 

People with severe obstructive sleep apnea may stop breathing hundreds of times while they sleep. These pauses in breathing may last for a few seconds to a minute or more, and they can recur dozens of times in each hour of sleep. If you were to watch people with severe obstructive sleep apnea sleep, you likely would see their struggle to breathe. You would hear characteristic thunderous snoring, interrupted by episodes of silence when breathing stops. Then you would hear a gasp or loud snort when they awaken, and take in air.

Sleepers with obstructive sleep apnea awaken repeatedly, but usually for only a few seconds at a time. They seldom remember these awakenings later. They usually recognize, however, that they sleep poorly.

Someone suffering from severe obstructive sleep apnea may drift off to sleep while watching TV, talking with someone, or even eating. Most worrisome, they may fall asleep on the job or while driving, endangering themselves or others.