Can snoring ruin a marriage?

February 01, 2006

The husband snores. The wife nudges him to flip over. Both wake up feeling grouchy the next morning. It's a common occurrence that may have more of an impact on the marriage than most couples think.

The Sleep Disorders Center at Rush University Medical Center is conducting a scientific sleep study to evaluate how a husband's sleep apnea impacts the wife's quality of sleep and the couple's marital satisfaction.

"This is a frequent problem within marriages that nobody is paying enough attention to," said Rosalind Cartwright, PhD, founder of the Sleep Disorders Center at Rush. "Couples who struggle with sleep apnea have a high-divorce rate. Can we save marriages by treating sleep apnea? It's a question we hope to answer."

The Married Couples Sleep Study is evaluating 10 couples in which the male has been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. After completing surveys about sleepiness, marriage satisfaction, and quality of life, the couple spends the night in the sleep lab where technicians determine each partner's quality and quantity of sleep. Following two weeks of treatment, the diagnostic tests and surveys are repeated.

"Our early results are showing that the wife's sleep is indeed deprived due to the husband's noisy nights. This is not a mild problem. The lack of sleep for both partners puts a strain on the marriage and creates a hostile and tense situation," said Cartwright.

For example, in one couple, the husband's snoring was arousing the wife out of sleep over eight times an hour. Her sleep efficiency rating, which is the percentage of time she is actually sleeping during the night, was 73 percent. The average person's sleep efficiency is closer to 90 percent. The wife had tried ear plugs, earphones, and numerous other devices to try to sleep through the snoring. She eventually gave up and chose to sleep alone.

"The strain on the marriage was evident. The couple was fighting all the time and the surveys revealed low satisfaction with the marriage, especially when it came to effective communication," said Cartwright.

The husband underwent two weeks of treatment at home using continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). The noninvasive treatment prevents the upper airway from collapsing during sleep, allowing the lungs to function normally during sleep.

Following treatment, the wife's quality of life measure jumped from a 1.2 to a 7, meaning the sleep apnea was no longer bothering her at all. Her sleepiness scale, which measures how tired she feels during the day, dropped from 12 to 6. Marital satisfaction scores improved from 3 to 5.8 and the wife's sleep efficiency jumped from 73 percent to 82 percent.

"Our early results have been terrific," said Cartwright. "It is beautiful to see couples getting along so much better.

The Married Couples Sleep Study is currently ongoing. The study of the first ten couples should be completed by April. Cartwright anticipates presenting data this summer. If the results are promising, the study will be expanded to include more couples.

The study is conducted in the Rush Sleep Disorders Center's new "couples sleep room." The room was made possible by a 50,000 donation from a former patient. The room is furnished with a queen size bed, television and other amenities to make the couple comfortable. Both the husband and wife undergo simultaneous polysomonography, a sleep test that monitors brain activity, eye movements, muscle activity, heart rate and rhythms, breathing patterns, blood oxygen level and body movements and respiratory sounds. All sensors are noninvasive and do not cause pain or discomfort.

The study involves first diagnosing the sleep apnea. The husband will sleep alone in the center as technicians monitor his sleep. If he has sufficient sleep apnea, he will undergo a split night study to determine the appropriate CPAP treatment.

Sleep apnea is a serious health problem that should be treated. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the tissue in the back of the throat collapses and blocks the airway. The breathing pause lasts at least 10 seconds and can occur 10 or more times an hour. Apnea lowers the oxygen level in the blood leaving the patient vulnerable to hypertension, stroke and other cardiovascular problems.

Obstructive sleep apnea can occur in men and women of any age; however, it is most common in obese, middle-aged men. The most common signs of sleep apnea are loud snoring, choking or gasping during sleep, and fighting sleepiness during the day. In addition to continuous positive airway pressure, treatment includes losing weight, sleeping on your side instead of your back, avoiding alcohol and tobacco.

Founded in 1978 by Rosalind Cartwright, PhD, the Sleep Disorders Center at Rush was the first such center in Illinois and the first in the region to receive accreditation from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Since that time, the doctors at the center have treated more than 16,000 patients. Clinical and laboratory facilities include eight hotel-like bedrooms with private bathrooms, state-of-the-art computerized monitoring room, and four patient evaluation and examination spaces.

Find out more information about your particular sleep problems with our unique interactive conversation about sleep. This Web-based tool uses a friendly, conversational tone to help you explore your personal sleep issues in depth by asking pertinent questions that lead you to targeted information. You can access this interactive tool at www.rush.edu/sleep
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Rush University Medical Center

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