Sleep apnea is a disorder in which one repeatedly stops breathing during the night. It has many potential causes, all of which lead the upper airway to collapse while someone is asleep. Treatment of sleep apnea is necessary to prevent major health problems.
Addressing the Cause
In order to prevent the obstruction of the airway, which is the most common cause of sleep apnea, there is one treatment that is the best option. To keep the upper airway open, it is often necessary to support it with a constant flow of air delivered through a face mask worn while sleeping. This most common treatment is called continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP. There is also a similar option called bilevel positive airway pressure, or BiPAP.
What to Expect with CPAP
Once it has been determined by a physician that this is the best treatment option, it is necessary to visit with a provider of durable medical equipment. The CPAP machine will be set with a prescribed pressure, and other equipment -- including a humidifier, hosing, and a personally fitted mask -- will be issued. It is important to find a mask that is comfortable, with minimal leakage when it is worn. Most individuals who use CPAP are able to tolerate it after a few weeks of regular use. Some people may need to address minor nuisance issues.
Are There Other Options?
Although CPAP therapy is clearly the best option in moderate to severe sleep apnea, some individuals cannot tolerate it. In this case, other treatment options might be pursued, including:
- Weight loss
- Surgery to remove excess tissue in the throat
- Positional sleep aids (such as "sleep shirts" or wedges)
- Dental devices to move the lower jaw forward
- Oxygen support (which is not usually sufficient alone)
What are the Benefits of Treatment?
With treatment, many of the chronic conditions associated with sleep apnea can be resolved. It has been shown to improve daytime sleepiness, concentration and memory, heart disease and heart failure, heartburn and reflux, diabetes control, erectile dysfunction, depression, and reduce the risk of car accidents. In addition, studies show that using CPAP is as effective as taking any one blood pressure medication to treat high blood pressure. If left untreated, sleep apnea can increase the risk of sudden death.
Collop MD, Nancy."The effect of obstructive sleep apnea on chronic medical disorders." Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. 2007 74:1.