4 Sleep Specialist Tips for People With Sleep Apnea
As a sleep specialist, I tell my patients to think about obstructive sleep apnea as a plumbing problem. People with this condition experience airway blockages at night, causing them to stop and start breathing repeatedly as they sleep. Normally, we inhale and send air down the back of the throat through the windpipe and into the lungs, and we don’t really have to think about it. But when we go to sleep, the muscles that line our breathing tubes relax, so there’s less space for the air to go through—this is true for all human beings and most mammals. However, if you have sleep apnea, the muscles in the back of the throat relax a little bit too much, blocking airflow completely. This wakes you up for a split second, causing you to start breathing normally. But a few minutes later, the process will occur again. You might have slept a solid eight hours, but your sleep was so disrupted you feel tired all day. Fortunately, there are several great treatment options for sleep apnea, and it’s very rewarding to help patients live rested, full lives again. Here’s what I want my sleep apnea patients to keep in mind:
1. Commit to your sleep apnea treatment.
The most common treatment for sleep apnea is called a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. A CPAP is a small medical device, about the size of a clock radio. It can sit on your nightstand and plug into the wall, and it connects through a tube to a mask. If you have sleep apnea, you’ll place the mask over your face before you go to sleep, and the CPAP will filter out allergens, add moisture to the air you breathe, and send pressurized air directly to your airways, keeping them open. There are different types of CPAP machines and masks, so patients should work with their doctor to find the best option for them.
My biggest CPAP tip for patients is to commit to it right off the bat. It’s human nature to want to give yourself a night off every so often, but it’s crucial to wear your mask every night. Even if you’re not making it through the whole night with it on, that’s okay as long as you’re using it for a little while each night. If you use your CPAP consistently, you’ll not only get a better night’s sleep; you’ll also lower your risk of certain chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
2. Make sure you are educated about your condition.
Patients who feel empowered and educated about their sleep apnea do better with their CPAP machines, so it’s really important my patients understand why they’re using the device. When I diagnose patients with sleep apnea, I make sure to educate them about the hidden (and quite obvious) ways sleep apnea is impacting their lives. If you feel confused about your diagnosis, ask your sleep specialist to explain the details to you clearly.
3. When it comes to choosing a CPAP, be a picky consumer.
When you get set up with a CPAP device and mask, it’s important to spend the time and effort to make sure it’s the right one. If your mask doesn’t fit well, or is uncomfortable, or even if something just doesn’t seem right, don’t ignore it. Ask for help, whether it’s from the medical supply company or your sleep specialist. People can often run into difficulties with their CPAPs, and in many cases, it can be pretty straightforward to troubleshoot the issue. Keep in mind that your CPAP is no different from a prescription medication; it may need to be adjusted.
If you purchase your mask from a local medical supply store, commonly known as a durable medical equipment (DME) supplier, most have “comfort guarantees” that allow the purchaser a free exchange within the first month of use. I encourage people to take advantage of this opportunity, because we want the mask to work well for you. The last thing I want my patients to do is force themselves to use an uncomfortable mask and struggle night after night. Using a comfortable, well-fitting mask is a very different experience than using a mask that doesn’t work for you.
4. Update your CPAP equipment every few years.
Every few years, I recommend that my patients look into newer models available to see if something new will work better for them. Masks designed 10 or 15 years ago most likely won’t be as comfortable or sleek as newer ones. Sometimes, I’ll see patients who’ve used the same CPAP masks and devices for more than a decade, and they just keep purchasing the same one as needed. If you do this, though, you miss out on meaningful improvements to old mask designs that could greatly increase your comfort level at night.
It’s important to stay on top of new CPAP device improvements, as well. In the past, all CPAP machines gave a constant level of air pressure all night. Today, there are lots of different versions of CPAP machines that can control and change the flow of air to coordinate with your needs. CPAP devices can also filter and add moisture to the air, and can even track sleeping patterns. If your old CPAP machine and mask are working for you, that’s great; but after several years, you should check out what’s new because there might be something even better out there.