If you're one of the 18 million adult Americans diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea -- a condition where your breathing is interrupted during sleep -- your doctor may recommend a variety of treatments. Among the most common devices for sleep apnea are continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, mouth appliances, and specially designed pillows.
The goal of all sleep apnea treatment devices is to increase airflow to your lungs. Airflow is blocked when the muscles around the tongue and throat relax to cause a blockage that air can't get through. For mild apnea, a mouth device or other gadget may be enough. For more severe cases, the CPAP machine is usually recommended.
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Here’s a look at what's available – from made-to-order appliances to do-it-yourself methods -- and how they work.
Mouth Devices for Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea mouth devices come in custom made and over-the-counter varieties, all meant to be worn during sleep. These oral appliances are fitted by a dentist:
Mandibular advancement device (MAD). These look like a mouth guard used in sports. The devices snap over the upper and lower dental arches. Hinges make it possible for the lower jaw to be eased forward. This stabilizes the tongue and soft palate to keep the airway open.
Tongue retaining device. This is sort of like a splint that holds the tongue in place to keep the airway open. It is not prescribed as often as the MAD. People often need more time to get used to these devices and don’t find them to be as comfortable.
An over-the-counter “boil and bite'' device is widely available online. You heat this device in hot water, then bite into it to customize it. The aim is to move the lower jaw forward and improve airflow, so you have fewer episodes of interrupted breathing.
But they may not work as well as custom-made devices. In 2008, researchers in Europe evaluated the use of custom-made and ''boil and bite" devices in 35 people with mild sleep apnea. Only the custom-made device reduced the average number of respiratory or apnea events per hour.
Before buying an oral device, talk to your doctor about which would be best for you.
Position Pillows for Sleep Apnea
Pillows to help relieve sleep apnea, designed to be used with the CPAP machine or without, are widely sold online. They come in various styles, including a wedge shape, which is designed to elevate your upper body.
According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, sleeping on your back with your back elevated from the waist up may help keep your airway from collapsing and, in turn, reduce apnea events. Use foam wedges, not soft pillows, according to the ASAA.
Sleep apnea pillows that are designed to be used without CPAP position your neck so the airway is more likely to remain open. Pillows to be used with the CPAP are meant to make it more comfortable to use. Some have features that reduce pressure from the mask or keep the mask from rotating out of place.
A small 2010 study of pillow use with CPAP showed that they do improve comfort. But people in the study were no more likely to keep using their CPAP machines than those who didn’t use special pillows.