CPAP, or continuous positive airway pressure, therapy is the most common treatment for sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a disorder characterized by pauses in breathing while a person sleeps. It can disrupt sleep, and it increases the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. A CPAP machine prevents airways from closing during sleep by increasing air pressure in the throat.
CPAP machines are medical devices that must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States, and must be obtained with a prescription. They are usually about the size of a shoebox and include a flexible tube that runs from the machine to a mask. There are several different types of CPAP masks available, and which kind is used mostly depends on what is most comfortable for the patient. Some masks cover the nose and mouth, some cover only the nose, and some are simply nose prongs.
CPAP therapy is the most effective non-surgical treatment method for obstructive sleep apnea, a type of sleep apnea in which the airways collapse during sleep. It is most often used for patients with moderate to severe sleep apnea, and has been shown to be extremely effective in treating the condition. Research has shown that CPAP therapy helps decrease daytime sleepiness, lowers blood pressure, and reduces the risk of more serious heart problems in patients with preexisting coronary artery disease. CPAP machines are most effective when used every night without interruption.
There are some risks and side effects associated with CPAP therapy, but most occur in the beginning stages of treatment and begin to subside as treatment continues. Many patients experience nightmares or vivid dreams in early use. Nasal conditions such as dryness, congestion, and sore throat are also common. Some patients have reported headaches and abdominal bloating as a result of CPAP therapy. Bacterial infections and severe nosebleeds are rare but potentially serious conditions and should be evaluated by a physician before treatment continues.
Patients who have a difficult time adjusting should talk to their doctors about using a different mask type or a different type of machine, called a bilevel positive airway pressure machine or BiPAP, that has automatically adjusting air pressure for inhaling and exhaling. Ensuring the mask fits properly and no air leaks out around the mask is also important to maximize comfort and effectiveness, as well as minimize side effects. Nasal side effects and headaches may be reduced by using a humidifier or nasal spray.
It takes most patients a few weeks to a few months to become comfortable with CPAP therapy. Additional sleep studies may be needed to modify treatment or adjust machine settings. Most sleep apnea patients continue to see a sleep specialist regularly to evaluate their progress and machine settings.