4 Treatment Options for Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is a condition in which you stop and start breathing repeatedly over the course of the night. This is because your airways become blocked as you sleep, stopping airflow. Fortunately, we have several treatment options available to treat sleep apnea, and treatment allows patients to live normal lives without daytime sleepiness or other frustrating symptoms.
1. Lifestyle Changes
To treat obstructive sleep apnea, there are four main approaches. First, I advise my patients to make certain lifestyle changes. We know losing weight tends to reduce the severity of sleep apnea. About 70% of people with sleep apnea are overweight or obese; excess fat can block the airways in the back of the throat. Additionally, a larger tongue can contribute to sleep apnea, and fat can deposit in your tongue if you’re overweight or obese. I encourage patients to lose weight by following a healthy diet and maintaining an active lifestyle. In some circumstances, we may consider weight-loss surgeries for patients who are struggling with multiple complications from obesity, including sleep apnea.
2. CPAP Devices and Masks
The second approach involves the use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices. CPAPs are the most commonly used therapy in the country for sleep apnea because they’re very safe and effective. A CPAP machine sits on your bedside table and plugs into the wall. It attaches to a hose with a mask at the end which you place over your face when you sleep. CPAPs typically have three main features. They filter out dust, dander, pollen, smoke, and other allergens; they heat and humidify the air you’re breathing in; and they gently pressurize the air and direct it straight into your airways. The air travels through the nose, down the back of the throat, and into the windpipe; this way, instead of the airway closing up every few minutes, continuous airflow is inflating your throat and keeping it open.
There are many devices available on the market and it’s crucial patients are conscientious and careful when choosing the right CPAP mask. Try a mask out for a couple of weeks before making your decision, and don’t be disappointed if the first few you try don’t work. Eventually you’ll find the right one for your needs.
3. Dental Appliances
In some cases, we’ll treat sleep apnea with dental appliances. These look sort of like bite guards you might wear to stop grinding your teeth. They pull your jawbone forward while you’re sleeping in order to open up the airway further. These devices aren’t quite as effective as CPAPs, but some patients prefer them. If patients are looking into dental appliances, I strongly recommend finding a dentist who is really experienced with them, because the published literature tells us the experience level of the dentist directly correlates with how well the device works. The bottom line is not all dental appliances are created equal, and while they don’t work for everyone, they can be a nice option.
4. Surgical Options
The final treatment approach for sleep apnea is surgical intervention. About 20 years ago, surgery for sleep apnea was fairly common; in these procedures, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor would basically cut out some of the excess tissue in the back of the throat to try to physically open up the airway. However, these surgeries only work about half the time and the recovery is fairly significant. As a result, these surgeries are not performed as often as they once were. Surgery is common for sleep apnea in children, as often the first line of treatment is to remove the tonsils and adenoids. This can be quite successful for a child with sleep apnea, but it’s not nearly as effective in adults.
I want patients to know sleep apnea is a really common problem, and we can do a good job of treating it with a CPAP or other therapies. Treating sleep apnea can improve your quality of sleep, increase your energy level, focus your concentration, reduce irritability, and improve your overall health. Develop a strong, trusting relationship with your sleep specialist and don’t hesitate to ask questions when they come up. You can work together to find an effective solution to sleep apnea that greatly improves your quality of life.