File photo: The device has been developed for people with sleep apnoea.

Wearing special headphones while you sleep could be an effective way to beat snoring.

The new device, the WhisperSom Curv, looks like a Walkman with a single earphone. The ‘Walkman’ part monitors breathing patterns while the snorer sleeps: if it detects a gap in breathing, as happens when we snore, the device plays a series of sounds through the earphone which are designed to trigger the autonomic nervous system that controls breathing.

The device has been developed for people with sleep apnoea.

It occurs when the throat tissue collapses repeatedly during sleep, blocking the airway for up to ten seconds at a time.

The patient stops breathing temporarily — in severe cases, there can be hundreds of these events, or apnoeas, a night.

The lack of air leads to a drop in blood oxygen levels, which in turn triggers signals to the brain that instruct muscles in the throat to contract in order to reopen the airways and the patient starts breathing again.

The snoring sound is produced as air is forced through the obstructed airway.

Left untreated, sleep apnoea can lead to serious long-term problems, such as heart disease and cancer. Treatment starts with lifestyle changes, including losing excess weight (fat can add pressure to the airways).

But if these don’t work, patients are offered masks called continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices, which deliver pressurised air to keep the airway open. Though effective, many people find them cumbersome.

The WhisperSom Curv device is also used during sleep. It has sensors that distinguish breathing sounds from other sounds in the bedroom, such as from air conditioning or the TV. These sensors are programmed to detect specific changes in breathing that occur during snoring: if they detect breathing has stopped, a signal is sent to the earpiece.

The earpiece emits hundreds of sounds at various frequencies — too low to wake the sleeper or their partner, but which stimulate the autonomic nervous system that’s responsible for functions in our body such as breathing, heartbeat and digestion.

The Maryland-based firm which developed the device says its studies show the nervous system reacts to the sound by sending signals to muscles in the throat. These then tighten to stop the soft tissue collapsing and restore normal breathing.

The device delivers a readout the following morning showing how many times it was activated during the night, which patients can then show their doctor.

The manufacturer says the devices will be made this summer and will be sold via its website. The price has yet to be fixed.

Commenting on the device, Professor Jaydip Ray, an ear, nose and throat consultant at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, says: "This is a very simple and non-invasive concept that is very attractive.

"However, the long-term effects of repeated disturbed sleep remain to be seen."