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Advances Let Snorers, Spouses Live In Peace

After they were married six years ago, Peggy Fraser’s otherwise quiet husband snored her straight into the guest room.

The South Hill couple hoped to spend their retirement wandering the West in an RV - California, Canada, then who knows where?

Instead, they couldn’t even sleep in the same camper.

“He’s very loud,” says the 58-year-old woman, who proved it to Pete Fraser, 66, with a tape recorder.

“We’ve tried everything from anti-snore pillows to these wristbands that zap you when you snore. I said, ‘This is it!’ But he got used to being zapped and it didn’t work.”

Earplugs bothered Peggy’s ears; tranquilizers clouded her mind. She urged Pete to sleep on his side instead of his back, but he snored there, too.

Dismayed, they sold their treasured RV.

A few weeks ago, however, a dentist and a chunk of plastic may have salvaged the Frasers’ retirement dreams.

Pat Stevens, a prosthetics specialist, helped craft a clear device that fits snugly over Pete Fraser’s teeth.

It works by pulling his lower jaw slightly forward and opening the airway in his throat.

When the retired engineer puts it in before falling asleep, he is virtually snore-free.

“It’s working wonderfully!” gushes Peggy Fraser, who is making traveling plans again.

The Frasers aren’t alone in their quest for a peaceful night’s sleep. There are an estimated 20 million to 30 million snorers in the United States - most of them men.

These days, snorers who go to oral surgeons and dentists for help are finding more options than “Sleep on your side” or “Try antihistamines.”

Stevens only recently began promoting the mouth insert, on the market for several years, after about a dozen patients found it well worth the $800 cost.

“Frankly, they’re damned grateful,” says Stevens, whose office is in the Medical Center Building on the South Hill. “Otherwise, they’re in separate bedrooms.”

Other snorers are looking to oral surgeons and ear, nose and throat specialists for a more permanent, newer antidote: laser surgery.

“I think there are going to be some wives really interested,” says Robert Steadman, who recently joined a growing number of doctors in Spokane who offer the surgery.

Laura Valentine was one of those sleepy, interested women. Her husband, Stan, never doubted his snoring kept her awake.

“When I was in the Air Force, I used to keep whole barracks awake,” says the 40-year-old surgical technologist.

Stan Valentine was sleeping so poorly - often even waking himself up with his snoring - that he nodded off during breaks at Sacred Heart Medical Center. He couldn’t read a book without dozing.

By the time a doctor suggested laser surgery, Valentine was ready to try anything.

Since the surgery last fall, he says, “I’ve never rested better. It was worth it.”

Worth what? Patients should know a couple of things upfront: It hurts. And when the handheld laser vaporizes tissue in the back of the throat, it smells.

Snoring usually is caused by excess tissue in the back of the throat. Surgeons trim away some of that flesh to open the airway - a procedure once done with a scalpel.

The main target is the uvula, the teardrop-shaped flesh that dangles from the roof of the mouth.

Doctors use varying amounts of anesthesia; some patients are drowsy while others don’t remember a thing. Some doctors do the surgery a little bit at a time, while others finish in one visit.

Steadman, who also is called on to repair faces crushed in accidents, counts laser surgery among his favorite procedures.

“It’s gratifying to be able to do something that helps people as much as it does.”

But anti-snore devices and surgeries aren’t for everybody.

With laser surgery, which can cost $2,000 to $3,000, there’s a small risk of scarring that can interfere with swallowing. If too much of the uvula is zapped, a patient could wind up with a nasal-sounding voice.

Most success stories come from patients, not science, says Robert Riley, an assistant professor of sleep medicine at Stanford University’s Sleep Disorders Center.

“There are not a lot of scientific data on the outcomes, but the general impression is that 80 to 85 percent of the patients will have improvement in their snoring,” Riley says.

The mouth insert doesn’t work as well with dentures, Stevens says. It may cause muscle spasms in people with jaw problems.

Peggy Fraser counts her husband - and herself - among the fortunate.

Beaming, she says, “It’s all four of us - our two puppies, him and me - all in our big king-sized bed.”

Graphic: Causes of excessive snoring