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Sleep Apnea Treatments

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on September 14, 2022

Sleep apnea is when you stop breathing while you sleep.

Treatments can include lifestyle changes, such as losing weight or changing sleep positions, medical devices like CPAP machines, or surgery.

Is There a Cure for Sleep Apnea?

While there is no cure for sleep apnea, studies show that certain lifestyle factors can reverse or make your sleep apnea less intense. Other treatment or surgical options can also reverse the condition.

Sleep apnea happens when your upper airway muscles relax while you sleep. This causes you to not get enough air. While sleep apnea may be reversed with dramatic weight loss, it usually requires treatment to improve symptoms.

Sleep Apnea Home Remedies

You may be able to treat mild sleep apnea with some lifestyle changes. Your doctor may recommend that you:

  • Lose weight. About half of people with sleep apnea are overweight. If you have some extra weight, you might also have extra tissue in your throat that makes it harder to breathe. Losing weight -- even a few pounds -- can often improve your symptoms.
  • Don’t use alcohol and sleeping pills. They decrease the muscle tone in the back of your throat, which can interfere with air flow.
  • Change sleep positions. You may breathe more easily if you stay off your back. Here’s a trick to keep from rolling over: Put two tennis balls into a tube sock and pin it to the back of your pajamas.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking can increase swelling in your upper airway, which may make both snoring and apnea worse.
  • Treat allergies. Nasal allergies swell the tissues in your airways and make them narrower, so it’s harder to breathe. Ask your doctor how to get them under control.

Sleep Apnea Machines

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). With CPAP, you wear a mask over your nose or mouth while you sleep. The mask is hooked up to a machine that delivers a constant flow of air into your nose. This airflow keeps your throat open so you can breathe the way you should. CPAP is the most common treatment for sleep apnea.

Bilevel positive airway pressure (BiPAP). BiPAP is like CPAP. But the airflow changes when you breathe in and out. You’ll wear a mask, which will connect the BiPAP machine to you. It'll use pressure to put air into your lungs. When you breathe normally, your diaphragm is pushed down so your lungs can fill with air. If you have sleep apnea, the BiPAP can help you breathe this way during sleep.

BiPAP is most often used for people with COPD. It is usually safe, but it isn’t right for everyone. If you have trouble breathing, swallowing, or staying conscious when you use it, talk with your doctor. They may be able to change your treatment.

Automatic positive airway pressure (APAP). If a CPAP machine doesn’t help or causes problems, your doctor may prescribe an automatic positive airway pressure (APAP) machine. It props your airway open while you sleep so nothing can block it. Different from the CPAP machine, the APAP machine adjusts how much pressure it gives you while you sleep based on your needs.

Oral Appliances for Sleep Apnea

Dental devices can help keep your airway open while you sleep. Devices often are designed to bring your lower jaw forward or, less commonly, hold your tongue in place. Dentists with special expertise in treating sleep apnea can design them for you.

Surgery for Sleep Apnea

You might need surgery for sleep apnea if CPAP and oral appliances have not helped or if you have a medical condition that makes your throat too narrow. These conditions include enlarged tonsils, a small lower jaw with an overbite, or a deviated nasal septum (when the wall between your nostrils is off-center).

The most common types of surgery for sleep apnea include:

  • Nasal surgery. This fixes nasal problems such as a deviated septum.
  • Uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP). This takes out soft tissue from the back of your throat and palate, making your airway wider at the opening of your throat.
  • Mandibular maxillomandibular advancement surgery. This fixes certain facial problems or throat blockages that play a role in sleep apnea.

Your doctor may perform a number of tests before surgery to determine what type of surgery (or surgeries) you may need. These tests may include endoscopic procedures, where flexible tubes with cameras are inserted into your nose and throat while you sleep to search for blockages. Your doctor may also use scans like X-ray, CT, or MRI to look for blockages.

Other Treatment Options for Sleep Apnea

  • Somnoplasty. Procedures done in your doctor’s office can shrink and stiffen the tissue of your soft palate.
  • Upper airway stimulation (UAS). If you can’t use a CPAP, you might get a device called Inspire. It’s an upper airway stimulator. Your doctor puts a small pulse generator under the skin on your upper chest. A wire that goes to your lung detects your natural breathing pattern. Another wire up to your neck sends signals to the nerves that control your throat muscles, keeping them open. You can use a handheld remote control to turn it on before bed and turn it off after you wake up.
  • Medication. Drugs like solriamfetol (Sunosi) can treat the sleepiness that often comes with sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea Self-Care

With sleep apnea, your self-care is important. You can add certain steps to your routine to better care for yourself:

Mouth exercises. Oropharyngeal exercises are mouth, tongue, and facial muscle exercises. A study found that they can help improve daytime sleepiness, snoring, your oxygen intake, quality of sleep, and other symptoms of sleep apnea.

Use a humidifier. One study found that a humidifier is the best way to protect against CPAP failure.

Check your prescriptions. Some prescription medications can make your sleep apnea worse. Muscle relaxers and painkillers (especially opioids) are most likely to do this. Ask your doctor about all the medications you’re on to be sure they don’t make your condition worse.

Meditation. Certain yoga breathing exercises and meditation can help improve factors related to sleep apnea. But experts need to do more studies to fully understand this link.

Why You Should Treat Your Sleep Apnea

Treating your sleep apnea can:

  • Improve daytime tiredness
  • Reduce risks for accidents
  • Reduce snoring
  • Improve headaches
  • Improve your mood
  • Make high blood pressure easier to treat
  • Reduce lower extremity swelling

It is also believed that treating sleep apnea reduces the risk of complications of:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Surgery

Show Sources

SOURCES:

National Sleep Foundation: "Sleep Apnea and Sleep,” “Sleep Hygiene,” “Surgery for Sleep Apnea.”

National Institutes of Health.

2005 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery, Los Angeles, Sept. 25-28, 2005.

Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery: “Patient Selection and Efficacy of Pillar Implant Technique for Treatment of Snoring and Obstructive Sleep Apnea/Hypopnea Syndrome.”

News release, FDA.

American Sleep Apnea Association.

Mayo Clinic: “Deviated septum.”

Tuomilehto, H. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, October, 2010.

Foster, G. Archives of Internal Medicine, September 28, 2009.

Vakulin, A. Annals of Internal Medicine, October 6, 2009.

Vasquez, M. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, October 15, 2008.

Oksenberg, A. Laryngoscope, November 2006.

Sheri Katz, DDS, past president, American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine.

Texas Heart Institute Heart Information Center: "Obstructive Sleep Apnea."

Hopkins Medicine: “What is BiPap?”

Sleep Foundation: “APAP vs CPAP.”

AAST: “5 Alternative Sleep Apnea Treatment Options.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “The Dangers of Uncontrolled Sleep Apnea.”

Sleep and Breathing: “Oropharyngeal exercises in the treatment of obstructive sleep apnoea: our experience.”

Sleep Medicine: “Factors influencing adherence to continuous positive airway pressure treatment in obstructive sleep apnea and mortality associated with treatment failure – a national registry-based cohort study.”

Reid Health: “Sleep apnea: 7 things that can make it worse.”

Osher Center for Integrative Medicine: “Integrated Yoga/Meditation-Based Therapy for Complex Sleep Apnea.”

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