Treating and Managing Sleep Apnea

How Sleep Apnea Is Treated

There are several ways to treat sleep apnea. No matter what treatment you choose, your doctor may want you to do a follow-up sleep study to make sure your sleep apnea is under control.

Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP): CPAP is a machine that gently blows air into your airway to keep it open while you sleep. You wear a mask that either fits into your nostrils, over your nose and/or over your mouth. Because CPAP works so well, it's often the first treatment your healthcare provider will have you try. It should be used every night for the best treatment.

Oral Appliances: Oral appliances are dental devices that open your throat by bringing your jaw forward while you sleep. These devices are most effective in treating mild to moderate sleep apnea.  

Surgery: If other treatment options are not right for you, you may be given surgical options. Sleep apnea surgery reduces the tissue in the back of your throat, pulls your tongue forward, and inserts a nerve stimulator to open your airway so you can breathe easier while sleeping. You may also be considered for surgery to remove tonsils or adenoids if they are blocking your airway.

Lifestyle Changes: Your doctor often will recommend that you make some lifestyle changes along with other treatments.

  • Lose weight: Losing just 10% of your body weight can improve your sleep apnea. Sometimes losing weight may even cure sleep apnea.
  • Avoid alcohol and sedatives: Your doctor may recommend that you stop drinking alcohol at least four hours before bed and avoid sedative medications such as sleeping pills.
  • Quit smoking: This may improve your sleep apnea because cigarette smoke can cause inflammation that narrows your airways.
  • Don't sleep on your back: Sleeping on your back may make your sleep apnea worse. Use a pillow to force sleeping on your side.

Treating Central Sleep Apnea

Many of the above treatment options may also be considered for central sleep apnea. Other treatments your doctor may discuss with you include adjusting current medications that may affect your nighttime breathing, adding medication to stimulate breathing or surgical considerations such as a nerve stimulator.

Managing Sleep Apnea

If you have sleep apnea, you and your doctor will want to work together to determine lifestyle changes that you need to make to manage your condition. After you start treatment, you'll feel more alert and less sleepy during the day. Your bed partner should notice reduced or eliminated snoring and gasping during the night.

It is important to use prescribed CPAP or oral appliance every time you sleep, but it may take you a while to adjust. If you are having a hard time getting used to your CPAP, or if you are still having symptoms after treatment, contact your doctor. There are many types of masks and it may take a couple of different tries to find the best fit for you.

If you use CPAP to treat sleep apnea, you need to regularly clean the device and replace the supplies. Many CPAP machines store information about how well they are working. Visit your doctor regularly to review the information on your CPAP machine to make sure it's working well. If you use an oral appliance, keep it clean and follow up with a sleep specialist and a dentist as it may cause your teeth to shift.

If you had surgery to treat sleep apnea, you may need a follow-up sleep study to make sure your sleep apnea has improved. You also may need to repeat a sleep study if you gain or lose weight. Over time, scar tissue or relaxation of your muscles can cause sleep apnea to return, so keep your doctor informed about any sleep symptoms you experience.

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: November 17, 2022

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