Skip to content

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. 

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.

Sleep Apnea Myths and Facts

Does everyone with sleep apnea snore? Get the facts.
View slideshow