Can the sound of snoring reveal an illness?
Snoring is no joke for partners, but it’s not much fun for the snorer either. Severe snoring is the sound of a sleeper fighting for breath, as relaxed muscles in the pharynx (the top of the throat) allow the airway to become blocked. Lots of people snore, but the loud and irregular snoring caused by a condition known as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can leave a sufferer tired and fuddled during the day, even though he or she is rarely fully awoken by the night-time disruption.
OSA is costly and laborious to diagnose, and it’s difficult to distinguish genuine OSA – which afflicts between 4% and 10% of the population – from ordinary snoring. Often a snorer will need to sleep under observation in a laboratory wired up to instruments that monitor brain waves, eye movement and other sleep-related activities. But a team in Brazil that brings together medics and physicists has a simpler solution: they say they have found a way of analysing snore recordings that is able not only to spot OSA but can distinguish between mild and severe cases.
Diagnosing OSA from snore sounds is not a new idea. The question is how, if at all, the clinical condition is revealed by the noises. Does OSA affect the total number of snores, or their loudness, or their acoustic quality, or their regularity – or several or all of these things? In 2008 a team in Turkey showed that the statistical regularity of snores has the potential to discriminate ordinary sleepers from OSA sufferers. And last year a group in Australia found that a rather complex analysis of the sound characteristics of snores, such as the pitch, might be capable of providing such a diagnosis, at least in cases where the sound is recorded under controlled and otherwise quiet conditions.
A person who snores but does not suffer from OSA typically does so in synchrony with breathing, with successive snores less than about ten seconds apart. In these cases the obstruction of the airway that triggers snoring comes and goes, so that snoring might stop for perhaps a couple of minutes or more before resuming. So for ‘healthy’ snoring, the spacing between snores tends to be either less than ten seconds or, from time to time, more than about 100 seconds.