Loud snoring, gasping for air during sleep, insomnia and daytime fatigue are some of the symptoms of sleep apnea – a common yet potentially dangerous condition that affects about 20 to 30 million people in the United States.
The good news is that there are options that can help you sleep better at night and feel better during your waking hours. Below, we talk about the most common treatments for sleep apnea, including various sleep apnea devices, surgery and home remedies.
First, can sleep apnea be cured?
No, sleep apnea can’t be cured. But when your sleep apnea is properly managed, it shouldn’t have a huge impact on your life.
How to treat sleep apnea
Your treatment depends on the kind of sleep apnea you have. There are different types of sleep apnea which can range from mild to severe.
The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea. It happens when your airway is blocked by something, such as your throat muscles, your tongue or enlarged tonsils.
The treatments included in this post all work for obstructive sleep apnea. And some of these treatments, such as positive airway pressure, also work for the other types of sleep apnea – central sleep apnea and complex sleep apnea syndrome.
Talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist to learn about the best treatments for you and your type of sleep apnea.
The most common treatment: Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy
A CPAP machine is the most recommended option for sleep apnea – and for good reason. Regularly using a CPAP machine is proven to improve your sleep, health and quality of life. Plus, they can be used for all types of sleep apnea. But there are some drawbacks to CPAP therapy, so we’ll get into alternatives to CPAP later in this post.
A CPAP machine sends purified oxygen into your airways while you sleep. Because the air is pressurized, the CPAP machine pushes against the tissues that can block your airway, keeping it clear. This helps you breathe without interruption.
A CPAP machine consists of a base unit with a motor that sits next to your bed, a cushioned sleeping mask and a hose that connects them together. There are different styles you can try based on your needs and preferences. A doctor or sleep specialist can help find one that’s right for you. And if the first one doesn’t work, there are other options to try.
How to get a CPAP machine
You’ll need a prescription to get a CPAP machine. So, the first step is to get a sleep apnea diagnosis – if you haven’t done so already.
If you have symptoms of sleep apnea, make an appointment with a primary care doctor. If appropriate, they will refer you to a sleep medicine center. Once your doctor confirms you have sleep apnea, they’ll talk to you about possible treatments, including CPAP therapy.
If you have a prescription for a CPAP machine, you can order sleep therapy products online through HealthPartners Home Medical Equipment. We carry the most popular CPAP options.
Insurance usually covers some of the costs of CPAP therapy – but coverage varies. So, you’ll want to check with your insurance company to see what’s covered.
Treating sleep apnea without using a CPAP
A CPAP machine is the most common treatment, but it’s not the only one. While CPAP therapy is incredibly effective, it doesn’t work for everyone, and some people may find it difficult to sleep while wearing the device. Fortunately, there are alternatives if CPAP doesn’t work for you.
Other types of positive air pressure therapy
If a CPAP machine isn’t working for you, it’s possible that a different type of positive air pressure machine may work better. The following machines are very similar to CPAP – they have the same parts, and you wear them at night. The difference is how they deliver air into your lungs.
- Bi-level positive air pressure (BiPAP) therapy – The different pressure levels of a BIPAP machine make it a good option for people who can’t tolerate a CPAP machine or have elevated levels of carbon dioxide in their blood. BIPAP machines also include a backup respiratory rate to ensure people with central sleep apnea don’t stop breathing while sleeping.
- Automatic positive air pressure (APAP) therapy – Your breathing changes during the night based on your sleeping position, medications and more. An APAP machine automatically adjusts to deliver the exact amount of pressure you need to keep breathing. APAP machines are often recommended for people with complex sleep apnea or those who can’t tolerate CPAP therapy.
Hypoglossal nerve stimulation with the Inspire device
With hypoglossal nerve stimulation, a medical device called Inspire is put inside your body. There are a few parts to this device. There’s a stimulation wire that’s put into your tongue, a sensing wire that runs along the rib cage and a stimulator that goes in the upper right side of your chest.
When you breathe at night, the sensing wire tracks your breathing. In response, the stimulator sends precise electric stimuli to your tongue muscles, causing your tongue to move out of the way so you can breathe naturally.
Because the Inspire sleep apnea treatment comes from an implanted device, you won’t need to wear a mask at night or be connected to a machine. Hypoglossal nerve stimulation may be an option if you’re an adult with moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea who is unable to use CPAP therapy. This therapy isn’t an option for people who are very obese.
Jaw advancing devices
Jaw advancing devices, also known as mandibular advancement devices, move the lower jaw forward, increasing the size of the upper airway. This improves airflow and prevents blockage that leads to obstructive sleep apnea and snoring. This is usually used for patients with mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea but may be tried for people who can’t use other therapies.
Jaw advancement devices are proven effective in clinical studies. The downside is that wearing one of these devices may lead to TMJ symptoms and increase your chance of developing arthritis in the jaw. There are over-the-counter options available, but they usually don’t work as well as prescription devices that are created and fitted specifically for your teeth, mouth and tongue.
Tongue retaining devices
If your tongue tends to block your airway during sleep, it’s possible that a tongue retaining device could help reduce or prevent mild to moderate obstructive sleep apnea symptoms. These types of sleep apnea mouthpieces use a splint and suction to keep your tongue in place so that your airway stays open during sleep.
These devices are widely available at the pharmacy and online, and fit almost everyone. But these devices can make your tongue sore since the suction is constantly pulling against the tongue. They also make it difficult to breathe through your mouth, so they’re not a good choice if you have nasal blockage of any kind.
Home remedies for sleep apnea
Your health and habits have a huge impact on your sleep apnea. Making changes to your behaviors can lessen your symptoms and make sleep apnea treatment more effective.
You may be able to reduce your sleep apnea symptoms with home remedies on the following list – but none of these options actually treat sleep apnea. So if you have sleep apnea, make sure you talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist about treatment options.
- Change your sleeping position – If you sleep on your side or your stomach instead of your back, it’s easier for your airway to remain open.
- Use a pillow designed for sleep apnea – A new pillow won’t fix your sleep apnea, but it can help improve sleep quality. Find one that’s adjustable, good for stomach or side sleeping, and elevates your head. If you use a CPAP, BIPAP or APAP, look for pillows that are designed to accommodate your mask.
- Try nasal strips or a nasal dilator – Using nasal strips or a nasal dilator can improve airflow into your nose when you have nasal congestion or inflammation for any reason. While nasal strips can be used with most sleep apnea therapies, there are times when a nasal dilator may not be safe. For example, there’s a chance that a dilator could fall out inside a sleeping mask. So, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about what’s safe.
- Quit or limit the use of sleep medications, narcotics and alcohol – It’s best to quit using any substance that relaxes your airway or affects your breathing patterns. If you’re not sure you can do this, contact your doctor.
- Treat allergies – If you have allergy symptoms, getting them under control can make a big difference in the quality of sleep you get at night.
- Lose weight – Getting rid of excess weight may reduce fatty deposits in your neck, which can block your airway while you sleep.
- Get exercise – Regular exercise can help you get more restful sleep. Yoga in particular may help with nighttime breathing.
- Use a humidifier – If the air in your bedroom is dry, it can be harder to breathe. Using a humidifier can decrease congestion and clear your airway.
- Take a vitamin D supplement – There’s research showing that nearly everyone with sleep apnea also has a vitamin D deficiency. Taking a vitamin D supplement won’t fix your sleep apnea, but it may help you sleep better. Plus, vitamin D is key to strong, healthy bones.
- Quit smoking – Smokers are three times more likely to get obstructive sleep apnea than people who have never smoked. Quitting smoking can help reduce your odds.
Do chin straps work for sleep apnea?
You may have seen sleep apnea chin straps advertised online and wonder if they could be a good option. The answer is no. Chin or jaw straps don’t seem to work for sleep apnea, and they may be dangerous.
Chin straps are designed to reduce snoring by holding your mouth closed while sleeping. But obstructive sleep apnea isn’t caused by an open mouth, it’s caused when your tongue or throat muscles relax so much that they block the airway.
Chin straps that wrap around your head can move your jaw backward, further narrowing your airway. If you currently use a positive air pressure machine and find that air is leaking out of your mouth, a chin strap could be an option. But find one that just closes your mouth and doesn’t wrap around your head. Better yet, ask your doctor for recommendations.
When sleep apnea surgery may be an option
Most of the time, surgery is only recommended for sleep apnea if other treatments haven’t worked. Options include:
Surgery to change the anatomy of your mouth
The anatomy of your mouth is unique to you. The size and position of your bones, tongue and other tissues affect your chance of getting sleep apnea. If other treatments haven’t worked, your doctor may recommend surgery to move bones, reduce tissues or tighten tendons.
Removing enlarged tonsils or adenoids
If infected or enlarged tonsils or adenoids are causing sleep apnea or making it worse, your doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy, and possibly an adenoidectomy, to remove them. Tonsillectomies for sleep apnea are more common in children. However, it’s possible that a doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy for adults with tonsil infections that won’t go away or keep coming back.
Fixing a deviated septum
If your nasal septum is off-center or bent, it can affect your breathing and make sleep apnea more likely. If a deviated septum is causing sleep apnea or making it worse, your doctor may recommend septoplasty surgery to straighten out your nasal septum.
Start treating your sleep apnea for improved quality of life
Untreated sleep apnea can seriously affect your life. Sleep apnea treatments help you sleep better, feel better and improve your overall health.
If you’re still looking for the best treatment for your sleep apnea, make an appointment with a sleep specialist.
Not sure if you have sleep apnea? Making an appointment with your primary care doctor is a good way to start.