Treatment for sleep apnea depends on the severity of the problem. Given the data on the long-term complications of sleep apnea, it is important for patients to treat the problem as they would any chronic disease. Simply trying to treat snoring will not treat sleep apnea. Because of its association with heart problems and stroke, sleep apnea that does not respond to lifestyle measures should be treated by a doctor, ideally a sleep disorders specialist.
At this time, the most effective treatments for sleep apnea are devices that deliver slightly pressurized air to keep the throat open during the night. There are a number of such devices available.
Continuous Positive Airflow Pressure (CPAP)
The best treatment for symptomatic obstructive sleep apnea is a system known as continuous positive airflow pressure (CPAP), sometimes referred to as nasal continuous positive airflow pressure (nCPAP). It is safe and effective in sleep apnea patients of all ages, including children.
CPAP may not be recommended for patients who have mild sleep apnea as identified in sleep studies but who do not have daytime sleepiness, as they generally report little or no benefit from this treatment. Those with moderate sleep apnea are more likely to be recommended CPAP. When severe sleep apnea is present, most patients will receive CPAP. Overall, CPAP is considered first-line treatment for mild-to-moderate, or moderate-to-severe obstructive sleep apnea.
CPAP works in the following way:
- The device itself is a machine weighing about 5 pounds that fits on a bedside table.
- A mask containing a tube connects to the device and fits over just the nose.
- The machine supplies a steady stream of air through a tube and applies sufficient air pressure to prevent the tissues from collapsing during sleep
Review Date: 06/11/2010
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.