Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition that can lead to heart problems and oxygen and sleep deprivation. While mild sleep apnea may not require regular medical treatment, moderate or severe cases need medical oversight and treatment using a specific breathing device called a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.
Sleep Apnea Treatments: CPAP Machines
A CPAP machine features a nose tube or face mask that you wear while you sleep. In addition to causing snoring, moderate or severe sleep apnea causes you to stop breathing anywhere from several seconds to a full minute, which can cause oxygen deprivation. With the help of a CPAP, you will continue breathing regularly throughout the night, allowing you to have a solid seven to nine hours of restful sleep.
The main problem stemming from sleep apnea is lost sleep. When you stop breathing, your body wakes up— often without you realizing it— so you can begin breathing again. Even becoming partially awake can change your sleep cycles so you do not get enough good-quality rest.
People who have mild sleep apnea may snore a lot or have times during the night when they breathe irregularly, which can lead to sleep deprivation for both the sleep apnea sufferer and their partner. Instances of moderate or severe sleep apnea can be dangerous for your long-term health for other reasons, which is why you need an appropriate medical diagnosis. Then, you should get a good-quality CPAP machine to use as prescribed.
How Do CPAP Machines Work?
The CPAP device is the leading sleep apnea treatment. The device forces air into your lungs so you do not stop breathing or breathe irregularly while you rest.
While these are important machines to manage your condition, models with large masks that cover the nose and mouth may be uncomfortable, leading to a few nights of lost sleep while your body adjusts. If you have been prescribed a CPAP machine, it is important to use it regularly so you can get quality sleep after you adjust to using it.
All types of CPAP machines use mild changes in air pressure with a low, continuous flow of oxygen to force the sleeper to breathe in a regular pattern. This prevents oxygen deprivation, which can cause damage to the brain and body.
The majority of people who use their CPAP machines regularly find immediate symptom relief. However, your doctor may note a timeframe of 2 to 12 weeks to get fully used to the machine and start getting enough high-quality rest. Once this adjustment period is done, less than half of people with CPAP machines quit using them. Unfortunately, as many as 83% of people who are prescribed CPAP therapy do not adhere to it, mostly because they do not give themselves enough time to adjust to the device.
There are two basic types of CPAP machines:
- Nasal CPAP: This CPAP machine has a nose tube that goes into both nostrils. It either uses some point of contact on your head for support or, in the case of nasal pillow CPAP machines, it uses straps around your forehead to anchor the nasal tube in place.
Since the device does not take up half of your face, it is considered more comfortable than the full-face CPAP. Nasal CPAP machines do not cover the mouth, so they may not work for everyone with sleep apnea.
People who have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) due to problems in their sinuses or who sleep with their mouths closed can benefit from the nasal CPAP machine. Nasal CPAPs also work well for people with facial hair.
People who sleep with their mouths open, whose tongue or glottis blocks the throat, or who have central sleep apnea (CSA) will not benefit from a nasal CPAP. They need more sources of continuous air pressure to ensure regular breathing.
- Full–face CPAP: This is a more common and more effective type of CPAP machine. A mask goes over the nose and mouth and is strapped around the head to be held in place while you sleep. It works by putting pressure on the lungs to breathe regularly by forcing air through both the nose and mouth at the same time. Although it is bulky and takes some adjustment to get used to the device’s presence, it is much more effective than the nasal CPAP.
If you sleep with your mouth open, sleep on your back, have allergies or other, larger obstructions, or need a high-pressure setting for your CPAP, your doctor will recommend the full-face version.
There is some chance that air will leak out around the mask, which can reduce its effectiveness. The presence of the mask around your nose and mouth may lead to sore spots or even blisters on your skin, especially if the mask is too tight.
Regardless of which type of CPAP device you get, it is important to use this machine whenever you sleep. This means using it at home for regular evening rest as well as during naps, while you travel, or in other locations where you might sleep.
Common Problems With CPAP Machines Can Be Overcome
As with any medical treatment, ask your doctor any questions you have regarding the CPAP device, including how long you can expect the adjustment period to be. Give yourself time to get used to this machine.
Some other problems may come up with your CPAP machine, which you should report to your doctor so you can adjust the machine or get a new type.
- Wrong mask size: When you are prescribed a CPAP machine, ask if you can have a mask fitting before you begin using the machine at home. This ensures your mask is the right size.
If it continues to leak air or causes damage to the skin on your face, adjust the straps a little. You may need to get a different mask size or style. For example, if your nasal CPAP is not working, you may need the full-face mask.
- Trouble adjusting mask: If you have trouble falling asleep with the mask on, try using it while you are awake to get used to its presence. Spend time with the mask on, even if the device is not running.
If you still struggle to get used to the mask, ask your doctor about a smaller device, like the nasal CPAP. It may not be the ideal option for your type of sleep apnea, but your doctor can advise if it will work better for you.
- Difficulty tolerating forced air: When you use your CPAP machine, make sure that the airflow setting is the one recommended by your doctor. If this flow is uncomfortable, check with your doctor about setting it lower. This can help you get used to the feeling of forced air, after which you can increase the air pressure if your doctor advises.
- Dry or stuffy sinuses: If you wake up with dry or itchy sinuses, or feeling like your nose is clogged, this may be a sign that your mask leaks air. If you adjust the mask and the problem continues, you can ask about CPAP machines that feature humidifiers. You can also use a saline nasal spray before you go to bed or when you wake up in the morning.
- Skin irritation: If your mask is too loose, it may move around your face and hurt your skin. In contrast, if the mask is too tight, it can dig into your skin and cause marks, pain, or sores.
Either way, you can adjust your mask until it fits better, or ask your doctor about getting a larger size. You can also use unscented creams or lotions to alleviate pain once you have adjusted your mask.
- Feeling claustrophobic or having problems with the noise: Unfortunately, CPAP machines are loud, and having something over much of your face while you sleep can make you feel claustrophobic.
As with other adjustment trouble, try wearing the mask while doing something relaxing before you go to bed. Find a way to make the mask, and perhaps the noise of the device, part of your evening routine so your conscious mind can gradually get used to it. Then, your unconscious mind can manage these disturbances better while you sleep.
If anything comes up regarding your CPAP machine, do not hesitate to speak with your doctor about adjustment options.
It is important to use this device if you are diagnosed with moderate or severe sleep apnea. To ease the transition, you can make parts of your bedroom more comfortable too. Finding the best mattress and pillows, for example, can help your body feel more relaxed as you try to sleep.