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CPAP Machine: What Is It and How Does It Work?

By John McGuire
Now that you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, it’s time to learn about CPAP machines. Find out what these devices are and how they work.

Sleep apnea is a serious condition and can lead to a host of negative health consequences. A common sleep apnea treatment option is a CPAP machine, but what does this device do? CPAP stands for “continuous positive airway pressure,” and a CPAP machine is what delivers this pressure via a face mask. CPAP machines are designed to provide just enough air pressure to keep your upper airway passages open while you sleep. This prevents snoring and sleep apnea, according to Mayo Clinic. Here, we’ll cover in more detail what CPAP machines are and how they work.

How CPAP Machines Help Treat Sleep Apnea

A CPAP machine treats sleep apnea by delivering air pressure through a mask to lift the airway tissues so that they do not collapse and cause obstruction when you’re breathing at night. The amount of air pressure needed will vary from person to person and can be determined in a sleep lab or with the help of home testing kits. Some CPAP machines can also perform auto-titration, according to the American Sleep Association.

CPAP machines are often favored over other interventions for sleep apnea because they are non-invasive, highly effective, and provide immediate results. Here are some of the potential benefits of CPAP therapy, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine:

  • Increased energy, alertness, and concentration
  • Heart disease prevention
  • Stroke prevention
  • Diabetes prevention
  • Motor vehicle accident prevention
  • Improved emotional health

The design of a typical CPAP machine includes an air pump, a face mask, a hose, and sometimes a humidifier. “Many patients have difficulty with the mask interface, [but] there are countless options when it comes to choosing the style and size/fit of their CPAP mask. The ‘Darth Vader mask’ that many people usually associate with CPAP that covers half the face is not commonly used these days. CPAP mask designs have evolved more recently,” Sam A. Kashani, MD, a Sleep Medicine Physician at the University of California Los Angeles Health, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

Getting the right fit on the face mask is a critical step for successful CPAP therapy. “Sometimes it takes time and trying a few different mask types before finding what works best for the individual,” says Kashani. Here are the three basic types of masks, according to University of Michigan Health:

  • Nasal pillows: Prongs that insert under the nose.
  • Nasal masks: The mask fits over the nose only.
  • Full face masks: The mask covers both the mouth and the nose.

CPAP machines do require some maintenance to prevent infections or allergies. Although cleaning routines vary, the most important step in cleaning your machine is simply rinsing it with water and using appropriate cleaning fluid, according to the American Sleep Association. 

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