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Second-hand Snoring

WHAT IS SECOND-HAND SNORING?

Not only can snoring and sleep apnea be detrimental to the sufferer, it can also wreak havoc on the person’s bed partner.

Major medical journals have acknowledged the long-term suffering of bed partners of snorers. The research shows that people who sleep next to a snorer have more pain complaints, have higher levels of fatigue and sleepiness and may even be at higher risk for hearing loss.

The research is important because snoring is often treated as a laughable annoyance. The insurance industry considers snoring a nonmedical issue and usually won’t pay for treatment. Often, even people who snore don’t take complaints from their spouses seriously enough to seek medical help for the problem.

Doctors do know that people who snore may suffer from a more serious sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnea. Complaints of snoring and apnea have risen sharply in recent years along with the general increase in obesity, a risk factor for sleep problems.

Little attention has been paid to the collateral damage of snoring and sleep apnea on the spouse or bed partner. Research shows that people who sleep next to snorers may wake up as often during the night as people with documented sleep disorders. One Mayo Clinic study found that spouses of snorers wake at least partially an average of 21 times an hour, nearly as often as the 27 times the snorers were awakened by their documented sleep problem.

“Bed partners definitely undergo some sleep deprivation secondary to snoring,” says Mas Takashima, a physician at National Jewish Health hospital in Denver, which has a major sleep-disorders center.

It’s not clear just how harmful the effects of second-hand snoring really are. If the actual snorer has sleep apnea the disorder is dangerous because it triggers a cascade of reactions in the body that increase risk for a number of health problems. However, for the nearby bed partner, being awakened frequently at night doesn’t appear to have the same consequences.

Bed partners of snorers and people with sleep apnea complain of excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue, which can affect relationships at both work and home. In a September 2015 study published in the journal, Chest, by the Mayo Clinic’s sleep-disorders center in Scottsdale, Arizona, 54 patients with documented sleep apnea were studied, along with their spouses. The patients and spouses were given quality-of-life assessments and sleepiness tests.

In the surveys, the spouses reported experiencing more pain compared with national averages, although it’s not clear why. Interestingly, the spouses of snorers initially showed the same quality-of-life scores as national norms. Researchers think the spouses simply accepted the snoring as part of daily life. Once the sleep apnea and snoring were treated, the spouses’ quality-of-life scores jumped significantly showing that they had been suffering more than they realized. And the spouses’ sleepiness scores improved by 20% once the problems were treated.

“What the study showed is the entire quality of life was reduced in these people…and it did increase significantly when [the spouse] was treated,” says James M. Parish, medical director of Mayo’s center in Scottsdale. “We have to take into account that this affects the spouse to a significant degree along with the patient.”

The summer of 2015, the Journal of Otolaryngology published a pilot study of just four snorers and their bed partners. Researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, found that the bed partners all showed a significant amount of noise-induced hearing loss. In all four patients, who had slept next to a snorer for 15 to 39 years, the damage was limited to the one ear that was most exposed to the snoring.

Study co-author Andre Tan, who heads the department of otolaryngology at Queen’s University, says snoring can reach levels as high as 90 to 120 decibels.

For some people, sleeping next to a snorer is the sound equivalent of “sleeping next to an industrial machine for 10 years or 15 years,” says Dr. Tan. In industry, people who are exposed to noise that exceeds 85 to 90 decibels for eight hours or more are generally required to use ear protection. “If someone does have a partner who snores that loud,” says Dr. Tan, “ear protection is very important.”

While earplugs are an option, many people don’t want to risk sleeping through an alarm clock or any nighttime emergencies. The longer-term solution involves treating the snoring or apnea problem itself. For some patients, losing weight can result in the most significant improvement. For others, surgical techniques firm up tissue that vibrates during snoring. However, it’s not clear how well the surgical methods work or how long they last. The most serious sleep-apnea problems can be treated with an air-flow mask that the sleeper wears at night. For nearly all people with snoring and obstructive sleep apnea problems, a dental appliance that helps open up a sleeper’s airway is an effective form of treatment.