Sleep Apnea Treatments

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on April 20, 2023
6 min read

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.

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.

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.

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. 

You can find a lot of information about the “best” kind of CPAP machines on your own, but only your doctor can really figure out what’s going to work for you. Your CPAP mask connects the machine to your airways. Masks come in different sizes. In order for your machine to do its job, the mask needs to fit properly. A sleep technician, sleep technologist, or respiratory technologist can work with you directly to fit you to the right mask.

Consider comfort. You want to think about the type of mask that will work best with your features. Another key piece of mask choice is whether you breathe through your nose, your mouth, or both at night. Some machines are louder than others. Some take up more space than others. Consider how the machine you choose will work with your lifestyle.

Explore accessories. CPAP machines not only come with masks, tubing, and filters, they also have add-ons you can get to make your machine more comfortable and easier to use. There's a whole range of “extras” that can enhance your experience. For example, pads can help soften the feel of the straps, and heated hoses can moisten the air as it enters your nose.

Research who will repair it. Your machine may have issues from time to time, so it’s good to know where you’ll turn for a fix.

Check your coverage. Most private health insurance policies cover CPAP machines and equipment like tubing, filters, masks, and headgear. The level of coverage will depend on your specific plan. Your plan may require you to rent your machine instead of buying one. You need a prescription to get a CPAP machine, so a primary care doctor, pulmonologist, or sleep specialist who can review your sleep studies should be your first stop.

Using a CPAP for the first time is also a whole new experience in general, so give yourself time to adjust.

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.

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.

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 do several tests to determine what type of surgery (or surgeries) you may need. These tests may include endoscopic procedures, where flexible tubes with cameras are put 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.

  • 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 lungdetects 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.

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.

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