The type of sleep apnea treatment that is recommended for you will depend upon your form of sleep apnea – whether it’s considered to be central or obstructive sleep apnea – as well as the severity of your case. Here we’re going to look at the most common forms of treatment for the most common form of sleep apnea (obstructive sleep apnea or OSA). As the treatment for children’s sleep apnea is slightly different (including surgery for tonsils and adenoids) we have not included it in this article, but you can find more information on the topic here.
The CPAP Machine
CPAP stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, and a CPAP machine is a medical unit that essentially pumps a continuous flow of air to you while you sleep through a hose and a mask. The reason a CPAP machine works so well with OSA is that the airflow forces open the airways that may otherwise be blocked by the muscle of your throat. Because of the way it works, using a correctly configured CPAP device can also reduce or eliminate any sounds of snoring.
If you are buying a CPAP machine or are recommended one by a sleep specialist, you will find that you need to try out a CPAP machine. There are three components for the machine – the unit itself, a mask that fits over either your nose or your mouth and nose, and a hose or tube that connects the mask to the unit. Many companies make CPAP machines, but probably the most well known are Resmed, Phillips and Fisher & Paykel. While each CPAP machine does basically the same thing – pump air into your mask, and keep track of how you are sleeping – they each come with different features such as heated hoses (to prevent condensation building up in the hose and mask) and different digital settings for airflow.
CPAP, APAP and BPAP machines
Because sleep apnea sufferers’ requirements are different, there are several different types of sleep apnea machines you can get. We’re not going into too much detail here, however here is a quick breakdown of the different types of machine you might encounter:
- CPAP machines deliver one fixed pressure throughout the night – although many models do come with the “ramp” feature that has a lower pressure setting which many people find more comfortable when they are first going to sleep.
- APAP Machines are similar to CPAP machines in that they provide one pressure setting. However, because they automatically detect your breathing patterns and know when you might need more pressure, they can adjust this during your sleep cycle.
- A BPAP or BiPAP machine is more complicated still, in that it provides different pressure settings for inhalation (called IPAP) and exhalation (called EPAP). This type of machine is beneficial for people who have a hard time trying to breathe out against the pressure of a normal CPAP machine.
For the purposes of this article, we’ve called all of these machines “CPAP machines” because it’s the common term used for such devices.
Benefits of CPAP Machines
If you are diagnosed with mild to severe sleep apnea, and you have obstructive sleep apnea, chances are your doctor will recommend you try a CPAP machine. It is currently considered to be the most effective treatment for sleep apnea on the market. Because it is so effective (and therefore lucrative) companies such as Resmed spend hundreds of thousands of dollars researching new equipment and technology. The range of CPAP machines, as well as the masks and accessories, has grown dramatically in the past few years so that now patients have a real choice in design, features and comfort. The good news is that as long as it is seen as a flourishing and growing market, we’ll see new and improved technology in the future.
The other benefit to using a CPAP machine is that it is relatively easy to use – you are, after all, mostly asleep when you are using it. It is true that it can take a while to get used to wearing something like a sleep mask to bed every night, and for some people, it’s just a matter of trying new masks and accessories such as sleep pillows to help them feel comfortable at night. Like with an exercise regime, using a CPAP machine takes persistence, patience and a little bit of faith.
Sleep Apnea Surgery
Surgery for people with OSA is often suggested in very severe cases, or where a specialist believes significant improvement can be made through surgery to the patient’s airways. Any surgery for the condition will target widening or enlarging the airway passages, as well as strengthening the relevant muscles in the region.
Potential areas for surgery include the jaw, tonsils, soft palate nose and the throat wall, with the most common procedure being a uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (removal of the tissues of the throat). Surgery is often considered in cases where people find it difficult to adjust to a CPAP mask, and it is believed that repeat surgeries are more successful for reducing the symptoms of OSA than a one-off operation. For a more detailed examination of the types of surgery for OSA see this article.
Lifestyle Changes To Relieve Sleep Apnea
Finally, we come to those lifestyle factors that may have caused your sleep apnea in the first place or may be making your symptoms more severe. These are all factors that your doctor should talk to you about when looking at your overall health and well being. These are things that you have control over – you may not be able to prevent your airways from collapsing as you breathe at night, but you may want to consider your choices in terms of your sleep apnea in the future.
There is no getting around the fact that being overweight is one of the prime risk factors for developing sleep apnea, although doctors do point out that not all obese people develop OSA, and not everyone who has OSA is obese. The key to whether you are at risk of developing the condition seems to be associated with neck circumference (17 inches or more for a man, 16 for a woman). If you fall into this group, a good sleep specialist or your doctor will recommend a weight loss regime that’s tailored to your needs (for example, swimming is often suggested for people who find it hard to put weight on their joints who are disabled). If you feel as though your dietary habits could be improved then you can always get advice from your doctor on good eating habits or visit a nutritionist.
It is not surprising that many patients with OSA complain that they lack the energy to embark on a vigorous exercise routine. Because they’re tired during the day they are less likely to want to participate in exercise (for example, taking the elevator instead of the stairs). Interestingly, doctors find that as soon as patients start to feel the benefits of using a CPAP machine – they have more energy and less tired all the time – they automatically start doing more exercise without even thinking about it. Many people find that their eating habits change naturally too, as they do not feel the urge to eat carbs as much or drink caffeinated drinks just to keep themselves awake during the day.
As if you needed another reason to quit smoking, the Mayo Clinic reports that people who smoke are up to three times more likely to develop sleep apnea than non-smokers. The reason is simple: smoking may cause the airways in the throat to become inflamed and cause fluid retention, leading to an obstruction when you’re sleeping.
Alcohol and drugs like sedatives
Like smoking, drinking alcohol and taking sedatives before bedtime has a disastrous effect on your breathing at night – it is believed that the muscles in your throat become relaxed, leading to them “collapsing” occasionally when you take a breath. People who go to bed after having a few drinks tend to snore more, and that’s the reason why.