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Treating sleep apnea

Sleep apnea can affect the health of the whole body. Luckily, several treatments can help.

If you have sleep apnea, getting treatment helps protect more than your nightly rest. Left untreated, apnea can raise your risks of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, depression, irritability, sexual dysfunction, memory and learning problems, and traffic accidents.

The most common type of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea, which happens when the airway gets blocked during sleep, restricting or cutting off the body's oxygen supply. A much less common type is central sleep apnea, caused by a problem with the parts of the nervous system that control breathing.

Both types of sleep apnea cause the body to wake up briefly—up to hundreds of times a night—to get breathing going again.

Treatment options vary by the type of sleep apnea and the factors that irritate it, but simple steps are often enough to take care of the problem.

Small changes that pay

Avoiding alcohol, sleep medicines and muscle relaxers may be enough to control mild cases of sleep apnea.

Sleeping on your side instead of your back can also help. If you're worried about rolling onto your back during the night, a tube sock with a tennis ball inside of it, pinned to the back of your nightshirt, may work. You can also buy pillows or cushions designed to control your sleeping position.

If you're overweight or obese, even a little weight loss can improve apnea symptoms, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Another option is an oral appliance. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA), these devices help keep airways open by changing the position of the jaw or preventing the tongue from falling back over the airway. Oral appliances tend to work best for people with mild to moderate apnea, according to the ASAA.

The next step

Apnea that doesn't improve with behavior changes or appliances can usually be helped with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). This treatment requires wearing a mask over the nose at night. The mask is connected to a machine that forces air into the nose with just enough pressure to keep the airways open. 

When other treatments don't work

If CPAP therapy doesn't work, people with moderate to severe sleep apnea may be able to try upper airway stimulation therapy, which is a system that uses mild stimulation to keep the airways open.

If the lower jaw is misshapen, surgery to correct its shape may help. Life-threatening sleep apnea may be treated with tracheostomy, surgery to make a small hole in the windpipe. A tube inserted into the hole is opened before bed to let oxygen directly into the lungs.

In children, surgery is often effective in treating sleep apnea. Removing the tonsils, adenoids or extra tissue at the back of the throat can fix sleep breathing problems.

One size won't treat all

The right treatment for any case of sleep apnea depends on many factors. A doctor may recommend a sleep study to find out more about how you breathe during sleep. Based on test results, general health and medical history, your doctor can help you decide on the treatment or treatments that are best for you.

Reviewed 8/9/2023

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