CPAP, short for continuous positive airway pressure, serves as the main treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, a potentially life-threatening condition.
With sleep apnea, a sleeper's throat muscles relax, collapsing the airway to the point that breathing stops and sleep is interrupted repeatedly throughout the night. A compact machine that can fit on a bedside table, the CPAP delivers a constant and steady air pressure that travels through a hose attached to a face mask, creating an air splint that keeps the user's airway open.
The CPAP is safe and proven to prevent long-term consequences of obstructive sleep apnea, but it only is effective when it is used regularly. Although the technology has improved greatly over the years, the CPAP can require a period of adjustment, making it difficult for many to comply with treatment.
To begin getting used to the CPAP, we recommend wearing it while doing an activity such as watching television.
Here are some common barriers to CPAP use and how to address them:
Uncomfortable or leaky face mask - Face masks come in a variety of shapes and sizes. You can work with your medical equipment supplier to guarantee a proper fit and find a shape that comfortably accommodates your sleep style.
Uncomfortable air pressure - Your sleep specialist can help you adjust air pressure levels to find one that is comfortable for you. Some machines can gradually increase pressure as you fall asleep.
Noise will disturb my partner - While thoughtful, this is rarely a concern for partners of those with sleep apnea. The CPAP is very quiet, and we have found that most people on the other side of the bed would choose to hear the CPAP over snoring.
How do you know if you have sleep apnea? Common symptoms include loud snoring, excessive fatigue, morning headaches, poor decision making and mood. A bed partner may notice when your breathing stops throughout the night.
If you have any suspicion that you have sleep apnea, you should be evaluated with a sleep study. Depending on the severity of your condition, your sleep specialist will recommend a variety of treatments ranging from weight loss, a change in sleep positions (sleeping on your back increases the likelihood of sleep apnea), use of oral appliances (CPAP) or surgery.
Untreated obstructive sleep apnea can lead to obesity and diabetes. It also accelerates hardening of the arteries, which can result in high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke while increasing the risk of, or worsening heart failure, make arrhythmias more likely and make work-related or driving accidents more likely to occur.
Many patients who learn to use the CPAP properly report an overall improvement in their energy levels and alertness. Those quality of life benefits, combined with the possibility of preventing serious chronic conditions that obstructive sleep apnea can bring on, are solid reasons to adjust your sleep routine to include use of the CPAP.
Burke is medical director of the Susquehanna Health Sleep Center, which is accredited by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.