Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea. This sleep disorder is caused by the relaxing of the muscles surrounding your airways as you sleep. As the muscles relax, they put pressure on or block airflow, causing momentary stoppages in your breathing. This may result in loud snoring and suddenly waking up, gasping for air. Common sleep apnea symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness, difficulty focusing, and depression. Obstructive sleep apnea often requires a diagnosis from a sleep specialist, because it can go unnoticed for long periods of time. Fortunately, there are a variety of options that can help treat obstructive sleep apnea. These treatments include general lifestyle changes; the use of positive pressure therapies; oral appliances for snoring; and surgical procedures.1 For the most part, sleep apnea is a chronic condition, although it can be cured.
Lifestyle changes and sleep hygiene are often the first line of treatment for dealing with sleep apnea. Because sleep apnea risk factors include being overweight, smoking, and alcohol use, there are several lifestyle changes that can reduce the effects of obstructive sleep apnea.
Exercise and weight loss are a popular method to treat obstructive sleep apnea. There is a correlation between the severity of your sleep apnea and being excessively overweight.2 This is because being overweight affects the anatomy of your airways. This is particularly true for middle-aged men, as the anatomy of their neck and soft tissues may change during this time. For many, losing weight reduces the pressure on their airways and can reduce or eliminate their sleep apnea.
Milder cases of obstructive sleep apnea have often been found to benefit from adjusting your sleeping position, avoiding smoking and alcohol near bedtime, and keeping to a regular sleep schedule.3 Sleeping on your side can reduce the blockage of your breathing while sleeping and allow for less disrupted breathing.
Positive airway pressure (PAP) is the standard treatment for more severe cases of obstructive sleep apnea. There are several types of CPAP machines. The most common type of PAP therapy is continuous airway pressure (CPAP). This works by supplying your airways with a constant flow of air, hence preventing blockages and sleep disruption. CPAP treatment includes attaching either a full face mask or a partial face mask through a tube to a CPAP machine, which provides the steady airflow. Another type of PAP machine is a BIPAP machine, which operates in a similar way, but adjusts the airflow according to your breathing. It has one airflow pressure for inhaling and another for exhaling.
These machines are generally very effective, but require a certain amount of maintenance, as a dirty CPAP machine can be unsanitary and dangerous. There are a variety of CPAP cleaning supplies you can use to ensure that your machine stays sanitary.
Another popular treatment for mild or moderate sleep apnea are oral appliances. Oral appliances, similar to “stop snoring” devices, work by either moving the jaw forward or preventing the tongue from moving back to create space, thereby preventing obstruction of your airways.4
For severe cases that do not respond well to other treatments, or for those who develop anxiety or distress as the result of the use of a CPAP machine, surgery can be an alternative treatment. There are several different surgeries available that depend on the anatomy of the individual and where their obstruction lies. These surgical solutions can focus on a variety of areas, including the soft palate and uvula, tonsils, tongue, and upper or lower jaw. Often, surgery includes reducing the soft tissue surrounding the upper airways, allowing for a more open airway. Just like any treatment, there is no guarantee that these surgical options will be effective.6
Obstructive sleep apnea is generally a chronic condition that requires management. In some cases, however, obstructive sleep apnea can be cured, usually by weight loss or surgery.7
If you do not wish to use CPAP therapy to treat your obstructive sleep apnea, then there are other treatments available. Many people who find CPAP face masks and machines too invasive use an oral appliance, which can reduce snoring.
Sleeping on one’s side is thought to be the best option. When sleeping on your side, you need to make sure that your head and neck are properly supported and lifted by pillows. Generally, sleeping on your back is the worst sleeping position for those with sleep apnea, as it has a higher potential for allowing the soft issues in your throat to block your airways.8
It may be beneficial to avoid alcohol, sedatives, or tranquilizers, as these are likely to relax the muscles in your throat while you sleep, resulting in obstructed breathing. Smoking can also make sleep apnea worse, as it inflames airways and causes fluid retention.9
© 2021 American Sleep Association.