Spouses Suffer From Secondhand Snoring

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 5, 1999 (Atlanta) -- Those who kick, poke, and prod their spouses out of snoring have a good medical reason for doing so: The person snoring is making them lose at least one hour of sleep a night, according to research published in the October issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

According to the researchers, the study is the first to scientifically prove that people who snore keep their bed partners awake. The results are no surprise to Kierstan Boyd, spokesperson for the National Sleep Foundation. "We've heard a lot of complaints from grumpy, sleep-deprived spouses," she says. "And we have heard many stories of partners who can't sleep in the same room together."

John Shepard, MD, medical director of the Mayo Clinic's Sleep Disorders Center, also heard such stories -- and that prompted him to look closer at what happens to a partner's quality of sleep when he or she shares a bed with a someone who snores.

Ten married couples participated in Shepard's study. Each of the husbands was suspected of having obstructive sleep apnea, a condition characterized by frequent, momentary cessations of breathing during the night. Snoring is a prime symptom of sleep apnea.

The couples spent one night at the Sleep Disorders Center for evaluation. "We put a series of electrodes over the scalp [to] monitor brain activity," explains Shepard. "From that you can determine whether a person is lying there awake or is asleep."

For the first half of the night, the men were allowed to snore, unimpeded, while researchers calculated everyone's sleep efficiency, the time spent asleep vs. total time in bed. The same measurement was calculated for the second half of the night, when the men put on a device called a nasal CPAP (for continuous positive airway pressure). This masklike device worn over the nose, hooked up to a blower, keeps the airway open and relieves the obstruction in the airway that leads to snoring.

Shepard says the sleep efficiency of the wives went from 74% the first half of the night to 87% during the second half -- which in a typical eight-hour sleep interval amounts to an hour of added sleep. "The nasal CPAP is a very safe and incredibly effective form of treatment," Shepard says. "But not everyone will use it, because you have to keep using it."

It's estimated that about 9% of adult men and 4% of women in the United States experience obstructive sleep apnea. And The National Sleep Foundation's latest Sleep In America poll finds 34% of adults report snoring a few nights a week or more, with 19% saying they snore so loudly they can be heard through a closed door.

There are other ways to reduce snoring. Shepard says that when overweight people shed pounds, they can get rid of sleep apnea. Sleeping on one's side, instead of the back, can also help by preventing gravity from pulling the tongue and palate back, which can obstruct the airway. He also recommends avoiding alcohol and says that people with a stuffy nose should take a decongestant (but not one that will keep them awake).

Shepard's final piece of advice contains a cruel irony: Get a good night's sleep. Sleep deprivation itself makes snoring and sleep apnea worse.