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CPAP: A Life-Saving Sleep Apnea Treatment
CPAP is an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that can lead to serious health problems.

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CPAP: A Life-Saving Sleep Apnea Treatment

It seems like everyone's talking about sleep apnea these days. It's frequently in the news. Your friends probably talk or joke about it. Some of your friends or relatives may even use a CPAP machine. But what's really so bad about loud snoring?

What is obstructive sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which you stop breathing or breathe too shallowly for short periods of time while sleeping. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is the most common type of sleep apnea.

When you sleep, the muscles in your throat relax. In OSA, this relaxation causes your airway to collapse or be blocked. Air isn't able to get through. This causes two things to happen: Your heart pumps faster to try to get enough oxygen to your body. And your brain senses the lack of oxygen and wakes you up, causing your airway to open again. This process may happen 30 or more times an hour.

Sometimes a little air can get through your windpipe, causing you to snore loudly. You may also make snoring or choking noises when you wake up during the night.

More than 12 million people have OSA, the National Institutes of Health say. About half of them are overweight. Men are more likely to have it than women. And the chances increase with age. 

People with OSA are often tired from poor sleep. They may doze off at the wrong time or struggle to concentrate. This puts them at higher risk of vehicle and work-related accidents. They may also be irritable or depressed.

What is CPAP?
CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. It is the most common treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. In CPAP treatment, a machine pushes air through your throat to keep your airways open. The machine is set to provide just enough pressure to keep your airway open.

CPAP is an ongoing long-term treatment and is usually prescribed for life. To get the most benefit, it should be used all night, every night. It should even be used during naps.

Health risks of untreated OSA
Obstructive sleep apnea is hard on your body. It prevents you from getting enough deep sleep. But it also is linked to serious health concerns.

  • Heart disease. Pauses in breathing stress your heart. OSA increases your risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, heart failure or irregular heartbeats. In fact, about half the people with OSA have high blood pressure. CPAP helps keep oxygen levels consistent, reducing stress on your heart.
  • Stroke. OSA more than doubles the risk of stroke in men. Women with severe OSA are also at higher risk of stroke. OSA is linked to other stroke risk factors, as well. These include high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
  • Diabetes. OSA is common among people with type 2 diabetes. Experts are not sure why and how sleep disturbances and diabetes are linked. But studies show CPAP can improve glucose control and blood pressure for obese people with type 2 diabetes.
  • Vehicle crashes. Being sleepy on the road is dangerous. People with OSA may struggle to stay awake behind the wheel, putting themselves and others at risk. Studies have shown a link between CPAP and fewer accidents or near-accidents.

Side benefits of using CPAP
CPAP treatment can offer some immediate benefits.

A big change is a reduction in snoring. You may not notice this, but your bed partner or housemates will. They may see an improvement in their own sleep when you sleep better.

You may find that you fall asleep more quickly while using a CPAP machine. And because you awaken fewer times in the night, you may feel less sleepy during the day. You may feel more alert and attentive and less crabby.

It may lower or prevent high blood pressure.

Using CPAP
If you think you might have obstructive sleep apnea, talk to your doctor. He or she likely will recommend that you have a sleep study. This can rule out other causes of snoring or sleepiness. It will also help your doctor determine whether CPAP is right for you.

If diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea, data collected during the sleep study helps you get the right settings for your CPAP machine. CPAP machines are small, lightweight and much quieter than they used to be. Some units have a ramp feature that slowly increases pressure when you turn them on. This can help you adjust more easily. You may also choose to have a humidifier attachment to prevent dry mouth and improve breathing comfort.

It is important to choose a mask that fits well and is comfortable. Poorly fitting masks can leak, reducing efficiency and blowing air into your eyes or mouth. They may also get pulled off in the night or irritate your skin.

Masks may cover your nose or nose and mouth. Some people prefer nasal pillows that are inserted into the nose. Tell your doctor about whether you sleep on your back, side or stomach. This may help your doctor decide what kind of mask and tubing is best for you.

CPAP may take some getting used to. Some people report better sleep on the first night using the machine. For others, it can take weeks. Don't give up! You'll soon feel the benefits of breathing and sleeping better.

By Emily A. King, Contributing Writer
Created on 07/31/2008
Updated on 01/23/2013
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is CPAP?
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is sleep apnea?
  • CPAP Central (American Academy of Sleep Medicine). Benefits of CPAP.
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