How is Sleep Apnea Treated?

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If you suspect you may have sleep apnea, the first thing to do is see your doctor. Bring with you a record of your sleep, fatigue levels throughout the day, and any other symptoms you might be having. Ask your bed partner if he or she notices that you snore heavily, choke, gasp, or stop breathing during sleep. Be sure to take an updated list of medications, including over the counter medications, with you any time you visit a doctor for the first time. You may want to call your medical insurance provider to find out if a referral is needed for a visit to a sleep center.

One of the most common methods used to diagnose sleep apnea is a sleep study, which may require an overnight stay at a sleep center. The sleep study monitors a variety of functions during sleep including sleep state, eye movement, muscle activity, heart rate, respiratory effort, airflow, and blood oxygen levels. This test is used both to diagnose sleep apnea and to determine its severity. Sometimes, treatment can be started during the first night in the sleep center.

The treatment of choice for obstructive sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP). CPAP is a mask that fits over the nose and/or mouth, and gently blows air into the airway to help keep it open during sleep. This method of treatment is highly effective. Using the CPAP as recommended by your doctor is very important.

Second-line methods of treating sleep apnea include dental appliances, which reposition the lower jaw and tongue, and upper airway surgery to remove tissue in the airway. In general, these approaches are most helpful for mild disease or heavy snoring.

Lifestyle changes are effective ways of mitigating symptoms of sleep apnea. Here are some tips that may help reduce apnea severity:

  • Lose weight. If you are overweight, this is the most important action you can take to cure your sleep apnea (CPAP only treats it; weight loss can cure it in the overweight person).
  • Avoid alcohol; it causes frequent nighttime awakenings, and makes the upper airway breathing muscles relax.
  • Quit smoking. Cigarette smoking worsens swelling in the upper airway, making apnea (and snoring) worse.
  • Some patients with mild sleep apnea or heavy snoring have fewer breathing problems when they are lying on their sides instead of their backs.

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