Have you ever been told that you gasp while you sleep? Do you snore? Do you experience daytime fatigue and lack of concentration? If so, you may be experiencing a disorder called Obstructive Sleep Apnea.
If you are familiar with sleep apnea or if you have it, you may also be familiar with the CPAP machines, or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machines. In past years, CPAPs have been the most recommended way to treat obstructive sleep apnea for many years. However, if you have used one, you know that they can be cumbersome, noisy, and uncomfortable. Today, there are better, more comfortable alternatives.
This article will discuss what sleep apnea is, treatment using CPAPs and some of the issues CPAPs may present. It will also discuss some other alternative treatments for sleep apnea.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a potentially serious and fatal sleep disorder, where a person’s breathing erratically stops and starts up again throughout the night, resulting in a very uncomfortable, and frankly, annoying, sleep schedule.
There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and complex sleep apnea syndrome.
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common, and it affects nearly 3 million people in the U.S. each year. Obstructive sleep apnea can be characterized by loud snoring, gasping during sleep, and daytime fatigue. It occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax, causing the airway to narrow or close as you breathe in. Because you cannot get enough air, the oxygen level in your blood decreases. Your brain senses this, and thus causes you to briefly wake up so that you can reopen your airways.
This may repeat many times during the night, sometimes up to 30 times or more, impairing your body’s ability to reach the full, restful, deep sleep it needs to function properly and healthily.
Treatment with CPAP
The CPAP, or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine, are the most widely prescribed and used treatment for moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea.
These machines consist of a mask, most commonly worn over the nose, but there are also kinds that cover the nose and the mouth. The mask should fit snugly against the face, so that air does not leak out. It supplies a continuous flow of pressurized air into the sleeper’s throat, increasing the air pressure so that the sleeper’s airway does not collapse.
As discussed above, the collapse of the throat muscles is what causes gasping and snoring, which causes a person to wake up several times a night, not allowing them to reach the deep level of sleep that they need. Patients who consistently use a CPAP have experienced a reduced level of snoring and they are able to get the sleep they need, resulting in more energy and concentration for the things that they need to get done in their day to day life.
However, most times CPAPs can pose insurmountable issues that often results in low utilization or cessation of treatment.
Possible Issues with CPAPs
Even though CPAPs are the most commonly prescribed treatment from doctors and have been proven to help people with their symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, there can also be many issues that come with using a CPAP. For some people, the problems it poses may outweigh the benefits. Here are a few of the most common problems that CPAP users have noticed:
- Air leaking from the mask, which causes more noise and makes the mask uncomfortable, irritating skin and the eyes
- Difficulty tolerating forced air
- Loud noise that keeps user or their partners awake
- Uncomfortable masks that cause feelings of claustrophobia
- Difficult maintenance (CPAPs require extensive and frequent cleaning which can be cumbersome and costly)
- Issues with improperly cleaned machines that build up mold and bacteria
Alternative Sleep Apnea Treatments
1. Oral Appliance Therapy
The most common alternative to a CPAP machine is oral appliance therapy. The oral insertion device works by holding your tongue in a certain position so that it doesn’t fall back and obstruct your airways/airpipe. It can also slide the user’s lower jaw forward a bit so that the patient can breathe easier while they sleep. Patients with mild to moderate sleep apnea who can not tolerate the CPAP machine should do well to consider this method of sleep apnea control.
Patients who have used this device as an alternative to the CPAP machine have stated that it is increasingly more comfortable to wear while sleeping and it’s way more quiet, portable, easier to wear and maintain, and overall a much better choice than the CPAP machine.
The standard sleep apnea surgery is where the surgeon reduces or eliminates the excess tissue around your throat that collapses and gets in the way of your airpipe while sleeping. Some surgeries may be minimally invasive, while others can be more complex. Generally, areas that may undergo surgery are as follows: tonsils and/or adenoids, the tongue, the soft palate and/or uvula, and the upper and lower jaw.
A few procedures that are used for treating sleep apnea include:
- Pillar procedure – This procedure stiffens and stabilizes the soft palate using an implant. In doing so, vibrations and likelihood of collapse in the airway are reduced. This procedure is minimally invasive and is helpful for those whose palate plays a significant role in their snoring and/or sleep apnea. It might not be beneficial to those with allergies (which may be found in the implants) or a small soft palate that doesn’t accommodate the implant.
- Somnoplasty – This procedure uses temperature-controlled radiofrequency to reduce tissues that may cause blockages. This is helpful in reducing snoring, but is less successful in reducing sleep apnea symptoms, and there is a risk for bleeding and infection.
- Bariatric surgery – This surgery targets the issue of obesity by either gastric banding, sleeve gastrectomy, or gastric bypass. This leads to weight loss, which helps reduce fat around the neck that could be contributing to sleep apnea episodes. This is a useful procedure for those who are overweight and whose weight is impacting their sleep, but it is more risky for those with high blood pressure.
- UPPP – This is the most common surgical procedure for sleep apnea treatment. It trims down excess tissue in the throat and excise part of the soft palate, uvula, and/or tonsils. This is especially helpful for those with enlarged tonsils.
Of course, surgery is not the right choice for every individual experiencing sleep apnea. Some negative side effects of the surgery may be pain, bleeding and/or swelling of the throat, staying overnight at the hospital, having your jaws wired shut for several days, and of course having a restricted diet. Despite all the effort put into surgery, the results may not last in some patients. Oral appliance therapy also has a higher success rate than the surgery.
3. A Weight Management Program
If the patient falls under the category of people who are overweight or obese, a weight loss/weight management program may help to improve or even eliminate someone’s sleep apnea symptoms. With more severe cases, though, weight loss might not be enough in treating sleep apnea. It might be more helpful to lose weight in conjunction with another treatment, such as oral appliance therapy.
Because heavier people usually have thicker necks, there is more tissue that could potentially fall back and obstruct the airpipe. Another thing to keep in mind is that depending on the individual, their air pipe may be naturally narrower than other people’s. Although losing weight may help, there is no guarantee that this will be the right sleep apnea treatment for you. It will make you feel great overall, though!
4. Positional Therapy
Most people who experience sleep apnea are found to be sleeping on their backs. Positional therapy is a behavioral strategy where you have to put on a special apparatus before you go to sleep. It straps and secures to your back and/or around your waist. It has a comfortable foam contour block so that you can’t roll onto your back, and thus ensures that you are always sleeping on your side.
In 2012, a group of scientists studied the long term effects of this form of sleep apnea treatment and they found that the positional therapy had, in fact, been very much effective in stopping sleep apnea cases in most of the patients that they had conducted studies on.
5. Changing Some of Your Everyday Habits
Behavioral changes such as quitting smoking or refraining from drinking alcohol may be some of the various lifestyle changes that could help someone to stop and reduce snoring and improve their sleep apnea symptoms. Alcohol is proven to relax your throat muscles, so that means that your throat is more likely to collapse while sleeping, and it also makes an individual more likely to snore.
In other cases, if a patient has allergies, they would do well in making a simple change like taking a nasal decongestant before bed that may help to improve the airflow through one’s air passageways, thus helping them to be less prone to sleep apnea symptoms.
Eating a healthier diet and having a regular exercise schedule can help you get better sleep as well, and aids in weight management.
Developing healthy sleep habits is also useful in alleviating sleep apnea symptoms. For example, you can try setting a sleep schedule, in which you go to sleep and wake up at relatively similar times each night and morning. You could also develop a routine before bed that helps you wind down for the night; perhaps reading, listening to music, or taking a warm bath. Avoiding using electronics before bed is another good habit, as the blue light stimulates your brain and can make it difficult to fall asleep.
6. Use a Humidifier
Dry air can cause the respiratory system to become irritated. Since a humidifier is a device that expels moisture into the air in the form of evaporated water, that will help to moisten the nasal passages, open the airways, encourage clearer breathing, and decrease congestion.
If you would like, you can also add essential oils such as peppermint, lavender, or eucalyptus to encourage anti-inflammatory and soothing benefits. However, you do need to be careful with the upkeep and cleaning processes of the humidifier. They can be a breeding ground for bacteria and molds, so make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions as to how to clean the device properly.
A Final Word
Taking everything said into account, it may be said that there are many different ways to treat the ever rising issue of sleep apnea! There is an alternative that almost anybody can use to treat their sleep apnea without spending money on an expensive Continuous Positive Airway Pressure machine.
You could maybe try an oral device to prevent airway obstructions, or you could perhaps go the more fitness-inclined route by losing weight to decrease your sleep apnea prone nights. And of course, there is always surgery to try and get rid of the excess tissue that may close around your airpipe, a seemingly more permanent solution to your sleep apnea, but that isn’t always a guarantee.
The easiest solution? Visiting a sleep specialist here at Advanced Sleep Solutions of Virginia. We have a highly-trained team dedicated to improving your sleep health! With your comfort being the first priority, we make the diagnosis as easy as possible with at-home sleep studies, online scheduling, a secure telemedicine portal, and an emphasis on CPAP-alternative treatments like oral appliance therapy.
Ready to take a stand against your sleep apnea and CPAP? Visit us! You can make an appointment online or call us today at (703) 689-2480 to schedule your free consultation!